Investigating migration: The anatomy of a recording

A look into how journalists verified a recording of a Maltese AFM official passing on migrant coordinates to a Libyan militia

By Nicole Meilak, Mahammad Bassiki, Bashar Deeb, Maud Jullien, Tomas Statius

This article is part of an investigation by MaltaToday, Lighthouse Reports, Al Jazeera, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and SIRAJ

When reporters were given an audio recording of an alleged AFM official, they couldn’t just rely on the information from the source. 

The first port of call was to contextualise the recording. The audio was recorded at around 05:45am UTC time, or 7:45am in local time. In it, we hear a position being relayed: 3342/01729. 

Indeed, at 4am UTC one of the AFM’s aerial assets – a Beech King Air B200 AS1227 – had just left Malta and was flying in a south eastern direction, according to flight data from Flightradar24.

Three hours later, the same asset was visible on another flight tracking website called MaltaRadar. It appeared to be returning to Malta from the Benghazi direction.  

Reporters also received footage of a rescue action by NGO Seawatch, whose planes assist rescue operations. The footage shows the TBZ vessel with migrants on board in Maltese waters several hours after the pilot gave them coordinates. Seawatch tried communicating with the crew on the TBZ, advising them that they were in the Maltese SAR zone and documenting their actions. 

Another one of the AFM’s assets - a Beechcraft Corp King Air 200GT AS1731 - was observed circling the position of the interception later in the day.

Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri addressing a press conference with the AS1731 as his backdrop (Photo: Department of Information)
Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri addressing a press conference with the AS1731 as his backdrop (Photo: Department of Information)

Apart from identifying the planes and obtaining the footage, reporters also decided to take the recording to Dr Sarah Grech and Prof. Alexandra Vella, two linguists at the University of Malta. When provided with the recording, they pointed out several features characteristic of MaltE, a variety of English spoken in Malta. 

“One of the most striking features in the first selected stretch is the placement of stress in coastguard,” they said, pointing out that the speaker in the recording placed stress on the ‘guard’ in coastguard, or stressed both elements. “The tendency to stress compounds on the second element or to double stress them is typical of MaltE,” they said. 

There are also phrase breaks in the recording that are less typical of mainstream varieties of English, resulting in a greater number of stressed syllables. 

Vowel sounds can also be indicative of whether a person is speaking this MaltE variety. “MaltE vowel sounds tend to be fully pronounced, rather than shortened when not stressed, as in other varieties of English,” they said. 

The early placement of high peaks in falling intonation contours is also a noticeable feature in the recording, according to Grech and Vella. In other varieties of English, phrases in utterances of this sort tend to be longer and the sentence accent is placed towards the end of the phrase in declaratives and yes/no questions. “A MaltE speaker might prefer placing sentence accent earlier in the phrase,” they said.

Overall, Vella and Grech said they “are confident that the speaker is Maltese” based on the combination of features evident in the audio clip. “A combination of features well attested for MaltE are in fact found in the stretches selected from the audio provided to us,” they said.

From all this, it could be established that the AFM was on patrol in the Mediterranean at the time of the recording, and that the person in the recording is likely to be a Maltese speaker. In other pilot recordings obtained, the Maltese pilots never identify themselves before communicating. Later in the day, an AFM asset was circling around the position where the interception may have happened. Eventually, the Tareq Bin Zayed intercepted a migrant boat, allegedly from within the Maltese SAR zone.

Reporters confronted the AFM with the recording, asking who authorised the communication and whether it is standard practice for the AFM to communicate with the TBZ. The AFM never confirmed who authorised the communication, and whether it is standard practice for the AFM to communicate with the TBZ. When presented with the chance, they did not deny nor confirm that it is an AFM official in the recording. 

Their response was: “Marine VHF radio is a worldwide open communication system used by ships, fishing vessels, pleasure craft, SAR vessels etc and aircraft. It’s a primary means to broadcast distress, urgency, and safety messages and is used to alert mariners if they are required. If there was a vessel that required any form of attention, aircraft pilots, like all mariners, are obliged to transmit information to vessels in the area where there is the possibility that a vessel will be involved in providing assistance. This is a common practice used by aircraft working for the civil fleet continuously broadcasting messages and calling directly ships in the area of their operation.”

Reporters sent another two follow-up questions to this, plus 11 other questions on the wider investigation. All those questions were left unanswered by the time of publication.