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October 14, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:40am

Four years after murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, Malta remains ‘hostile environment’ for journalists

By Freddy Mayhew

It is now four years since the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, but despite progress in bringing her killers to justice, her son and free speech campaigners warn it could still happen again.

Malta, a small island in the Mediterranean Sea sitting off the south coast of Sicily and an EU member state, was thrust into the spotlight when Caruana Galizia was killed by a car bomb on 16 October 2017.

Once described as a “one-woman Wikileaks“, the 53-year-old ran a defiant and hard-hitting blog in English (it’s still online) targeting politicians and big business, which at times drew more readers than all of Malta’s newspapers combined.

It won her supporters, but also dangerous enemies.

Her last published words remain chilling: “There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate.” She was killed as she drove away from her home in Mosta, the explosion sending debris into a nearby field.

[Read more: Daphne Caruana Galizia archive]

Public inquiry and prosecutions

This summer a judge-led public inquiry, which had been called for by Caruana Galizia’s family, found the Maltese state “should shoulder responsibility” for her death.

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In their 437-page report, the judges found that while the government of Malta was not directly involved in Caruana Galizia’s murder, it had “created an atmosphere of impunity”, the Times of Malta reported.

“A climate in which, those who wished to and managed to eliminate [Caruana Galizia] found the perfect occasion to do. Whoever planned and carried out the assassination did so in the knowledge they would be protected by those who had an interest in silencing the journalist.”

A year before her death, Caruana Galizia had heaped further pressure on the Maltese government with coverage of the Panama Papers leak, exposing offshore dealings. A journalist of 30 years, she had been battling corruption in Malta, but found herself in “total isolation”, the inquiry said.

“The fact remains that in the board’s opinion, Daphne Caruana Galizia’s writing about the intimacy between big business and politics led to her assassination.” (The report is currently only available in Maltese, but work is underway on an English translation.)

So far no-one has been brought to trial over Caruana Galizia’s death, however one man, Vincent Muscat, has pleaded guilty to her murder, receiving a 15-year sentence in February after turning state’s witness.

Two other men, brothers George and Alfred Degiorgio, stand accused of planting and triggering the bomb that killed her. Both have written to Maltese president George Vella asking for a pardon in exchange for information on the others involved.

Three men who allegedly supplied the bomb have also been arrested.

Melvin Theuma has been granted a presidential pardon for his role as a middleman in the murder, provided he shed light on the plot to assassinate Caruana Galizia. It was his information that supposedly led police to alleged murder plot mastermind Yorgen Fenech, a wealthy businessman.

Fenech is facing charges including complicity to murder and conspiracy to cause an explosion. He has been in custody since November 2019. A date for his trial has not yet been set.

Joseph Muscat, Malta’s prime minister at the time of Caruana Galizia’s murder, stepped down early last year amid public protests over the killing, although his party remains in power. Muscat’s former top aide, Keith Schembri, who was a subject of Caurana Galizia’s reporting, is facing corruption and fraud charges.

Muscat and Schembri have not faced any charges linked to Caruana Galizia’s murder and have publicly denied any involvement.

Caruana Galizia’s family, including her widower and three sons, continue to demand the prosecution of all those involved in her murder.

Impact of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s death

Actor Meryl Streep and author Margaret Atwood are among those to have spoken out in support of Caruana Galizia’swork.

Rebecca Vincent, director of international campaigns and UK Bureau Director at RSF, said: “Compared to most cases we’re in a very good place [with Daphne’s case] because in most cases of murders of journalists in any country context, we see impunity [for] attacks globally.

“That’s nine out of ten cases you see full or partial impunity for the killings of journalists, so the status quo is that there is unlikely to be justice for any murder of a journalist.

“And that is something that we really have to change and so when we campaign so intensely on emblematic cases like this… it’s not only to establish the truth and accountability for what happened to Daphne, but to start to chip away at that pervasive impunity for these sorts of cases everywhere.”

A total of 50 journalists were killed globally in 2020, according to Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres). The International Federation of Journalists puts the number higher, at 66 including media workers.

Caruana Galizia’s case is special for a number of reasons. It happened in an EU member state, which shocked many Europeans, she was working to expose corruption at the highest levels of government and business, and she was a fearless journalist who was well-known in Malta.

But her family’s tireless work campaigning for justice has also helped keep her death in the spotlight.

Paul Caruana Galizia, 33, one of Daphne’s three sons, who himself became a journalist after his mother’s death, said the burden of justice often falls on a victim’s family, but “often those people either don’t exist or the family doesn’t have the capacity or the energy to go on a four-year campaign”.

“For the first few months my brothers and I – we’re close in age, close in general – we were doing nothing else. We weren’t working and we were all living with my father, who was supporting us.

“And I thought, what are the odds that a murdered journalist happens to have three adult sons who are about the same age, who either work in journalism or politics and know their way around and have a surviving father, or partner, who can support them? It’s a totally freaky situation if you think about it.

“Along our campaign we met people whose relatives were murdered – journalists, investigators – and who simply could do nothing about it, who didn’t have the support or the resources or whatever.

“I mean it was absurd. There were days where the three of us would be running around say the European Parliament and literally lobbying MEPs, like lobbyists for a tobacco firm or Google. It’s been totally crazy, but we were thrown into it and we just kept doing it.”

The family have now set up the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation to continue the campaign for justice over her murder and to help support investigative journalists in the country. It is headed up by Caruana Galizia’s eldest son, Matthew, 34, who has taken it on as a full-time job.

Others, such as The Shift’s Caroline Muscat, have picked up and continued Caruana Galizia’s work

‘We still get a lot of threats’

The home of the Caruana Galizia family has police guards outside it 24/7.

“We faced enormous backlash, and threats, some directly from the government, most from its supporters,” said Paul. “We were harassed online, in person. We still get a lot of threats, mostly Matthew, who’s in Malta now, was at the receiving end of them, some really horrific, some really ugly.”

Paul said the family were happy with the findings of the inquiry into his mother’s murder, describing it as “comprehensive” and “really robust”.

“Bit by bit, with each hearing, people were seeing just how corrupt Malta is and just how deep-rooted the problems were and what my mother was up against, the kind of people she was investigating, the threats she was facing,” said Paul. “All these issues that were playing out behind the scenes were suddenly forced out into the open.”

With the publishing of the inquiry’s findings in July, Paul said: “I felt overwhelmed that my mother was recognised as an individual – the judges said all the extraordinary work she was doing, what she was up against – and because finally we had this assessment that said ‘yes, the state failed her completely and totally, and the state is ultimately responsible for her death’. It felt like recognition of both her work and the campaign my family has been on for now four years.”

But Paul says the family are still some way from getting justice.

“You want every person who contributed to her murder in every single way, big or small, to be prosecuted for it. Everyone, from the cover-up to the act itself, has to be prosecuted and anything less than that is unacceptable to us. And that’s before we even get on to the corruption.

He added: “We’ll simply keep campaigning for as long as it takes… There exists no other universe in which we let it go.”

‘I still think that what happened to Daphne could happen to somebody else’

There are now discussions taking place on how to implement some of the report’s recommendations, many of which centre on how to “reform Malta’s institutional setup”, said Paul, who was named New Journalist of the Year at the British Journalism Awards in 2019.

“Ultimately a murderer has a face, a name, a number and an address, but in my mother’s case it was the broader political environment that facilitated the murder. It was totally endemic corruption….

“It was these things that ultimately allowed her to be murdered and the board recommended ways of making our institutions more independent, making journalism a more protected profession in the country. This is now the next campaign, to make sure its recommendations are implemented in a non-partisan way.”

The family are calling for a panel of international experts to be appointed to push through reforms, although this has yet to happen.

Vincent said RSF is calling for “full justice” for Caruana Galizia, meaning thatevery person involved in every aspect of this attack is prosecuted to the full extent of the law”. But she said “broader systemic changes” are also needed “to ensure that the environment doesn’t allow for this to happen to somebody else, because as things currently stand, I still think that what happened to Daphne could happen to somebody else”.

She added: “We certainly see journalists that remain at high risk in Malta. It’s the very few that are pursuing this in-depth investigative reporting, like Daphne was doing, which is very few people in Malta, and I think that, unfortunately, we are not yet at a state where we couldn’t be confident that this scenario wouldn’t be repeated. And that is alarming.

“Where this ends, I would hope is in a way that journalists in Malta can work safely, and that we can be sure that this sort of scenario cannot repeat itself.”

In the years since Caruana Galizia’s death, Malta’s ranking in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index has plummeted by 34 places to 81 out of 180 countries. For context the UK ranks 33rd, Norway is top and Eritrea is bottom.

Concerns over journalists’ safety have kept Malta’s ranking down, along with the use of SLAPP suits (strategic lawsuits against public participation). Even after her death, defamation cases against Caruana Galizia still continue.

Paul said the Maltese people now recognise that the country has a “really serious problem with press freedom” and that “my mother’s murder is something that should never happen again and was a direct consequence of this totally endemic corruption”, but he too said that “nothing has changed in the way of preventing it happening again”.

“I think journalists in Malta still operate in an extremely hostile environment,” he said. “They’re targeted by disinformation campaigns, they are still intimidated physically in person, they’re harassed online… Malta’s still a very difficult, very dangerous place to work as a journalist.”

This weekend an international delegation of free speech organisations, comprising RSF, Article 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the European Federation of Journalists and the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, will visit Malta.

Delegates will meet with Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela, Police Commissioner Angelo Gafa and other members of the force, as well as diplomats, European politicians and journalists.

Their objectives are to push for justice and accountability for Caruana Galizia’s assassination, and call for an Independent Commissioner of Experts to implement the public inquiry’s recommendations, as well as raising concerns about journalists’ safety.

A march and a vigil for Caruana Galizia will also take place on 16 October. In London, a candlelight vigil will be held outside the Malta High Commission in Piccadilly from 5pm to 6pm on Friday 15 October.

But for Paul, the anniversary of his mother’s death has “become an intensely private thing” that he will mark with family in Malta. After all, Daphne Caruana Galizia was a wife and mother killed simply for doing her job as a journalist.

Picture: Reuters/Darrin Zammit Lupi

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