Foreign minister’s aide calls PEN activist a ‘biased shithole’ during UN meeting

Maltese foreign minister’s aide Sandro Mangion has been reported by PEN International to the UN for calling their activist a ‘biased shithole’ • Aide apologises for choice of words but insists they were directed at 'unscrupulous network' feeding activists unproven allegations

Sandro Mangion (left) with foreign minister Carmelo Abela
Sandro Mangion (left) with foreign minister Carmelo Abela

The private secretary to Malta’s foreign minister Carmelo Abela – Sandro Mangion – has been accused of calling a member of PEN International a “biased shithole” at a United Nations meeting in Morocco.

Various organisations among them PEN, the European Federation of Journalists, and Aditus Foundation, are demanding an immediate investigation into the verbal abuse of Sarah Clarke, advocacy manager of PEN International at the UN Global Compact on Migration, in Marrakesh, Morocco.

The incident occurred at the high level event to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Carmelo Abela’s intervention on behalf of Malta focused on the right to freedom of expression, noting, “not only do we believe freedom of thought and expression is a universal right, but its defence is the sustainment of an intangible right which should be enjoyed by all humanity.”

On her part, Sarah Clarke urged the foreign minister to substantiate the content of his speech by immediately instituting a public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. “I stressed that should the government of Malta seek legitimacy and credibility in relation to freedom of expression they should immediately conduct a public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, as per the longstanding advice of the coalition of the world’s leading freedom of expression organisations,” Clarke said.

But PEN said that Abela’s private secretary, Sandro Mangion, then told Clarke, she was a “biased shithole”, following accusations from Abela himself who said Clarke was ignorant of the facts of the case and had not spoken to the authorities.

PEN said these comments were repeated despite the fact that Clarke had stressed she had recently visited Malta as part of an international mission of NGOs on the occasion of the anniversary of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination.

“We condemn this behaviour as part of what we observe as a growing trend of Maltese public officials harassing female activists advocating for justice for the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia,” PEN and various other organisations said.

“Sarah Clarke, along with international and national Human rights activists, has worked tirelessly in seeking justice for the murdered investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Mr Mangion’s behaviour is unacceptable and the Maltese government must hold him to account. We demand an immediate apology. And we ask the UN to include this incident in the UNSG annual report on reprisals.”

The statement was signed European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), Aditus Foundation, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), International Press Institute (IPI), Platform of the Human Rights Organisations in Malta (PHROM), SOS Malta, and PEN International.

Minister's aide reacts

Asked to explain his actions, Sandro Mangion took umbrage at Clarke's decision to use the high-level event to "launch unfounded claims" against the Foreign Minister in relation to the Caruana Galizia murder case.

He apologised for the choice of words and insisted he was not referring to Clarke herself but to the "unscrupulous network" that was feeding her unproven allegations.

"I think some context needs to be provided: Ms Clarke came to sit on one of the chairs reserved for Malta at the event and asked me for a copy of the Minister’s speech, to which request I obliged. She then started launching accusations at Malta’s Foreign Minister. Each time he attempted to give a reply, she was not interested in listening and simply kept throwing back at him the same allegations," Mangion said.

He added that at one point, Abela rose and started walking towards the exit to leave for the next appointment, with Clarke in tow.

"It was at that point that, as I felt she was acting in an inappropriate manner and that she should have engaged the minister outside, calmly, I uttered the words “biased” and “shithole” in a low voice. I apologise profusely if any offence was taken, but I was certainly not referring to Sarah Clarke herself. I used those words to refer to the unscrupulous network by which she is obviously being fed unproven allegations that she kept parroting without having bothered to check her facts," Mangion insisted.

He then asked the newspaper whether it will also ask Clarke whether she will apologise for her attitude and behaviour towards a government minister at a UN event.

"The Foreign Minister has never shied away from conversations of this kind - she could have sought a private conversation, if indeed she was interested in getting answers to her allegations," Mangion said.