Court to rule on redaction of Caruana Galizia phone data to protect sources

Court expert flags broken tamper seals on evidence bags containing hard drives which contained the cloned phone data and the Running Commentary website

Murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia’s phone has not yet been exhibited in court (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia’s phone has not yet been exhibited in court (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

Murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia’s phone has not yet been exhibited in court, as direction had not yet been given as to how to protect her sources, an expert has testified this morning.

The issue was flagged to Magistrate Rachel Montebello by court expert Martin Bajada as the newly-reopened compilation of evidence against Yorgen Fenech continued on Thursday.

Bajada took the witness stand, having been called upon to exhibit a copy of data extracted from Caruana Galizia’s mobile phone and her website “Running Commentary.”.

“I cannot exhibit the mobile phone because there are still her sources on it. If we are saying that sources are sacred and cannot be given up, then it cannot be exhibited in its current state,” explained the witness, exhibiting an early report on the phone that he had handed to the inquiring Magistrate Anthony Vella, who was later made a judge.

He also exhibited a copy of a form documenting his handing over of the cloned phone and website data to a Europol expert. Lastly, Bajada exhibited a copy of a report that he had submitted during the compilation of evidence against brothers George and Alfred Degiorgio and Vincent Muscat.

“In this report, I had explained that I needed to be given instructions as to how the court wanted me to protect the sources’ identities.” A copy of the phone has never been exhibited, he said, adding that Magistrate Vella had ordered that the sources were not to be revealed.

Therefore, Bajada said the WhatsApp chats on the cloned phone would not be exhibited, until he was given instructions as to whether to obscure the sources and if so, how.

Asked by the court as to whether these instructions had been given, Bajada’s one word reply was “never.”

The redaction of the sender data was not straightforward, explained the expert.

“If you remove a message’s header you will also remove the date and time,” he said, adding that this also applied to the message’s footer. Bajada said he was consulting with another court expert to figure out a way forward in the absence of instructions from the court.

Answering another question, he confirmed that the phone was no longer in his possession, but was now being secured by Europol.

Broken seals on evidence

Bajada also flagged a worrying issue to the court: some of the hard drives in the case file, which contained the cloned phone data and the Running Commentary website, had broken tamper seals. He added that he had not been given documentation as to how the drives got there.

Magistrate Rachel Montebello, who took over the compilation of evidence at a late stage in proceedings, asked Bajada whether he had asked the inquiring magistrate for guidance on these issues, but Bajada replied that the magistrate had since become a judge and that the inquiry had not been closed.

Asked by the defence about the broken seals, Bajada said that he had informed the court that the seals were broken, but did not have information as to how, when, or by whom.

They had been broken after he had returned the evidence bags for the last time, said the expert.

Lawyer Charles Mercieca, who is representing Fenech together with lawyer Gianluca Caruana Curran and Marion Azzopardi, cross-examined Bajada, suggesting that there was work still to be done before a complete picture of the contents of the slain journalist’s phone and website was available.

Bajada pointed out that two of the inquiry’s experts had quit before its completion, implying that this had contributed to the delay.

“We had been a team of six and it took us two years to build a picture of what was happening,” he explained.

Mercieca asked how long it would take for the identities of Caruana Galizia’s sources to be obscured from the mobile phone. Bajada replied that he had previously told the court it would likely be at the end of February or early March and that this timeframe still applied.

The lawyer moved on, asking the expert what criteria would be used to determine who qualified as a source and who didn’t.

Bajada said that if a person was mentioned on the Running Commentary website and on the phone, they would be considered as a source, adding that persons who Caruana Galizia had identified on her website as having contacted her were not being considered as sources.

This method was questioned by Superintendent Keith Arnaud, appearing for the prosecution today. Arnaud asked whether emails or messages which had not resulted in articles were being treated as sources. Bajada replied that at the moment they weren’t and that this was why he was asking for guidance from the court.

Arnaud argued that the criteria Bajada was currently using were not enough, as they did not protect people who had provided Caruana Galizia with information, which she had been prevented from publishing by her murder. The Superintendent submitted that informants whose information had not yet been used for whatever reason, should also be classified as protected sources.

Answering Mercieca, Bajada confirmed that he could not complete his task until this issue was resolved.

Mercieca said it was a matter of utmost importance that the court have access to an unredacted copy of the data, while the parties were given redacted versions. He asked that submissions on the definition of sources be dealt with in the next sitting. “We agree that there is no interest in the identities of the sources, but we don’t want more information than necessary to be redacted.”

The court announced that it would be issuing a decree from chambers on the redaction method to be used.

The case was adjourned to January 3.