Malta in Crises After Death of a Journalist

Photo source: Guardian

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

When Daphne Caruana Galizia, a prominent journalist, described as ‘one woman Wikileaks’, was murdered in a car bomb blast, in Malta, in October 2017, a huge number of demonstrators attended a vigil in Sliema, her hometown. But, in the following time, no one knew that the intensity of protests would change the Maltese society. It is because protests became sustainable. A movement was born which converged other anti-establishment crusades. It was Malta’s worst socio-political crises since its independence in 1964 from Britain Commonwealth.

The news about her death invoked international reactions. Her persona soon became an inspiration. In April 2018, a consortium of 45 international journalists published The Daphne Project, a collaboration between 18 news organisations including the locally syndicated newspaper Times of Malta as well as The New York Times and The Guardian to complete her investigative work. In 2018 the European United Left-Nordia Green Left Award for Journalists, Whistle blowers & Defenders of the Right to Information was established in honour of Caruana Galizia. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had even announced that he would pay a €20,000 reward ‘for information leading to the conviction of Caruana Galizia's killers.’ Even an empty page appeared in the Malta Independent instead of her regular column soon after her death.

Fighting forty-eight libel suits before the time of her death reflected the valour in her journalism. It was in late 2016, Politico Europe included Daphne, along with George Soros, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Sadiq Khan, on its list of ‘people who are shaping, shaking and stirring Europe.’ She was ‘the blogging fury,’ the list read. That’s why, it wasn’t surprising that her blog was getting half a million visitors each day, more than the population of Malta.

After her death, Matthew Caruana Galizia, the journalist’s son believed that her mother's legal case ‘had driven Malta to the brink of a revolution.’ An expert on shell companies and holder of a shared Pulitzer Prize for the Panama Papers leak, he also believed that investigation into her mother’s death was unlawful, due to the involvement of Joseph Muscat in it, the then Malta prime minister, for which he was trying legal remedies. At the time of her death, she was tracking at least three stories that showed massive corruption in Malta at the governmental level. In Daphne's blog, ‘Running Commentary’, she had alleged that people close to the prime minister were linked to kickbacks, illegal and even dirty banking, offshore accounts in Panama, easy sale of passports, and a whole slew of activities like cocaine trade that made the Italian mafia look like mere amateurs.

Joseph Muscat did express frustration over her death, viewing it as a representation of the ‘collapse of democracy and freedom of expression’, but fissures in Maltese democracy appeared in November 2019, when clues about her murder directly pointed out at the government. Due to pressure from angry citizens and the opposition lead by Nationalist Party, it made Joseph Muscat eventually resign in January 2020. A public enquiry also found that he was responsible for enabling a culture of impunity, along with his cabinet.

It seemed Muscat, who just lived down the hill from Daphne’s home, gave condolences on her death, when in power, just to mislead. His peers, in the office often used their work computers to post cruel gossip about her, accompanied by unflattering photographs. They disdained her as an elitist, partisan fraud.

Daphne and Muscat also shared personal grudges, and it went back to 1998, when Daphne had first encountered him, when he published a book in which he fabricated her involvement in a criminal conspiracy. He had even sued Daphne for writing that his wife was the owner of Egrant, a shell company. In The New Yorker Oped, Ben Taub, wrote: ‘A drawing depicted the links between politicians and mafiosi as tentacles of an octopus, one of which bore Daphne’s name. She sued him for libel, and the judge ruled in her favour, noting that Muscat held “animus” toward her.’ But Daphne too attacked Muscat on many occasions. Her statements were often derogative: she described him as a ‘cocky shrimp’ who was ‘already proving that his party has promoted him beyond his abilities.’ He was, she wrote, ‘a quintessential empty vessel,’ his voice a ‘nasal whine', which makes him ‘sound like a twerp protesting that he’s been waiting too long in the queue at a nightclub for a vodka-cranberry juice’. In her opinion, Muscat’s supporters were also ‘sub-literate.’

Despite Daphne’s verbal aggresses, Muscat had won popular support about trying to modernise the Party platform by making it socially liberal and Eurocentric. He campaigned in favour of bringing women into the workforce and legalising divorce, after a divorce bill narrowly passed, in 2011. He even pledged to reduce energy costs by at least twenty-five per cent, through the construction of a new power station near the island’s southern harbour. This power station, Daphne thought, was superfluous, costly, and unreliable, and was likely set up as a kind of cover for distributing taxpayer funds to political allies and friends.

After Daphne's death, not only his political ambitions dented, but his darker side became more apparent, too. He started pointing fingers, and became sternly authoritarian when it came to anything that went against his interests. It became apparent when he had locked up some hundred journalists briefly in a room after a press conference, had earlier accused Daphne Caruana Galizia’s family of running a campaign against him, barricaded himself and his cabinet very visibly, and cordoned off the government buildings.

Around four thousand protestors had gathered near prime minister’s office in December 2019, and shouted ‘Prison’ and ‘Assassins’. Protesters even carried photos of the slain journalist as well as placards with the last words she wrote on her blog, shortly before getting into her car, which was blown up near her home. The lines read: ‘Gvern MafjuĊĵ’ meaning ‘The situation is desperate,’ referring to what she unearthed with her digging into suspected widespread corruption in Malta's political and business circles. On the placards, protesters added the word “still” before “desperate.”

Expats living in Malta also believed that common people were not passive about these protests in their countries, mainly due to global media outrage.

Some of the demands by the coalition of protestors also came during the crises. It included compensation to Daphne’s family, including reforms in which institutions act quickly on prosecutions.

When investigations were stirred up by the Maltese police, then Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi and then Economy Minister Chris Cardona also stepped down, as well as the prime minister's then Chief of Staff, Keith Schembri, who had his house searched by the police.

In July 2021, it was found out that a top businessman Yorgen Fenech, who had close ties with senior government officials, masterminded the murder. It was alleged that in an early spring of 2017, Fenech had requested for hitmen in a restaurant in Portomaso to kill Daphne, as she was going to publish damaging information about his uncle Raymond, who presided over the family business empire, and whose name appeared in the Panama Papers more than fifty times. Fenech, however, denied all responsibility. In a police interrogation, he even charged then Chief of Staff, Keith Schembri and Muscat himself for the murder, but Muscat denied any involvement in the coverup.

According to Reuters, three men suspected of setting off the bomb were arrested in December 2017. One had since pleaded guilty as part of a plea bargain, and is serving a 15-year jail term. The other two are awaiting trial. Media later also revealed close links between Fenech, former ministers, and senior police officers.

Malta is a nation where the parliamentary system has concentrated power in the hands of two political parties. After independence, the island suffered a post-colonial hangover, dominated by a repressive socialist Labour Party.

The political parties, whether in government or opposition, are by and large, happy with the institutional status quo. One of the other major handicaps is the broadcasting situation where the state broadcaster supports the government, and the large political parties even have their own TV station and their own radio station. That’s why a strong civil society emerging in the island would be one of its positive legacies, that would challenge the statist actions, as seen in the case of Daphne Caruana Galizia. One of its offshoots seems to be Repubblika, a rising movement largely coalesced due to the void left by her independent journalism. Officially formed in January 2019, the movement had turned protests about the handling of her murder investigation from low key affairs to marches on the streets of Valletta, attended by tens of thousands within first ten months.


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