The Malta Independent 18 November 2018, Sunday

One-year-on: International freedom of expression delegation to Malta ‘sceptical’ about PM listening

Julian Bonnici Sunday, 21 October 2018, 10:00 Last update: about 27 days ago

The assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia placed Malta directly under the international spotlight, bringing widespread condemnation from freedom-of-expression activist groups. A year later, these concerns only seem to have grown, culminating in an international freedom of expression delegation to Malta which expressed a serious concern about the shortcomings of the Maltese government, in particular the ‘lack of urgency’ in the investigation of the murder and the state of press freedom conditions of the country. Julian Bonnici spoke to three members of the delegation to obtain their perspective on the mission 

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Flutura Kusari: The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom

What is your own impression of the delegation’s visit to Malta?

First of all, I appreciate the fact that the Prime Minister found time for a two-hour meeting with us, at which he was open to our questions, unlike my experience when I met former Prime Minister Robert Fico in Slovakia a few days after Jan Kucak was murdered. However, I do feel that Mr Muscat had already taken his decision on how he would proceed when it came to the Daphne case and that he was not very open to our suggestions and recommendations.

My general impression was that he was there to listen but not to agree. Beyond our calls for a public inquiry, I was also interested to get his perspective regarding his absence of interviews with journalists and his position on the continued defamation lawsuits against Daphne’s family. With regard to the latter, the PM told us that he did not know what do any more, because if the lawsuits were withdrawn they would be criticised, and if they continue with them, they will also be criticised. We also spoke about the Egrant Inquiry and Mr Muscat told us that he is asking the relevant authorities to see whether he is able to publish it.

Based on your meeting with Prime Minister Muscat, do you think any of the delegation’s recommendations will be followed up?

I don’t know, but I would expect him to respond positively. I am sceptical, to be honest. From what we saw, I think he has a clear strategy on how he will proceed and that does not involve a public inquiry. Now, he is trying to delay the commencement of such an inquiry with legal tricks.

Critics argue that international delegations who visit Malta can paint a one-sided superficial picture of the current situation here.  Can you comment?

My response to the critics who believe that we are focusing too much on Malta is to ask whether they can find another case such as Daphne’s, in another European country, where a person was murdered by a bomb in front of her family. If they can, I would accept the criticism.

I understand that the people of Malta may find it difficult to have all this international attention on their country, but this is not our fault: the responsibility lies with the government. I think people should be asking the government why they did nothing to prevent Daphne’s death, when she had reported receiving threats. It was up to the Maltese government to deal with the case, not us.

Sarah Clarke: PEN International

What is your own impression of the delegation’s visit to Malta?

I would say that we have been shocked by the climate of free expression in Malta, in the heart of the EU. Daphne’s assassination a year ago was horrifying and at the time it seemed like an aberration. After the visit, the level of polarisation in the media is much clearer. There is a certain degree of fear about continuing to report, especially on corruption, about the stories on which Daphne was working. We also found a very worrying level of self-censorship amongst the journalists we met, which was due to a variety of reasons. These included the obvious concerns about open harassment and threats from both high-level authorities and the public, and also a much more pernicious form of pressure in the form of government advertising. We are seeing some preferential treatment in how funds – which is public money – are being allocated to pro-government media.  It is an asymmetric situation in which independent voices and media are essentially being isolated, marginalised and financially starved.

Based on your meeting with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, do you think any of the delegation’s recommendations will be taken up?

The very high degree of international pressure on the government of Malta would need to continue in order to implement these recommendations. The government is under a lot of scrutiny, both in terms of impunity over the assassination and in terms of questions of money-laundering.  Three delegations from the European Parliament have visited the country, a Special Rapporteur has been appointed by the Council of Europe to look into the investigation and Malta will be before the United Nations in a month for its periodical human rights reviews, so we feel that this could place significant pressure. However, at this stage we are not confident that the government fully understands the immediacy and urgency of implementing the recommendations and I think it is important to highlight the fact that the country’s international reputation is being extremely tarnished by what is happening.

Critics argue that international delegations who visit Malta can paint a superficial, one-sided picture of the current situation in Malta.  Can you comment?

I think our level of criticism is warranted. It is deeply disturbing to see the lack of accountability from the government, to see the repeated destruction of the Daphne protest memorial, and to see impunity in her case. It is extremely unusual within the EU.

Rebecca Vincent: Reporters Without Borders

What is your own impression of the delegation’s visit to Malta?

It was positive that senior Maltese government officials were willing to engage in an open discussion with us and that the Prime Minister, together with the Minister for Justice and the Attorney General, gave us the chance to raise our very serious concerns with them directly. As we expected, however, we found really serious shortcomings in the way the Maltese government is implementing its obligation to safeguard freedom of expression, particularly over the murder of Daphne. It has now been a full year and there has been no justice. We can see no tangible progress in the investigation, beyond the three arrests that were made a full 10 months ago. There seems to be no effort to track down anyone else involved in the attack and who actually planned it. That is not justice.

We are also concerned with the PM’s reluctance to open a public inquiry to see whether Daphne’s life could have been saved. That is really important. Until we understand how this happened, why this happened and whether the state could have prevented it, then journalists will remain at risk here in Malta.

Based on your meeting with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, do you think that any of the delegation’s recommendations will be taken up?

Well, we hope so, because they are in line with Maltese law and Malta’s international obligations.  We have raised these concerns with the UN Human Rights Council ahead of Malta’s periodical review and at the Council of Europe. These recommendations merely solidify what the international community has been saying to Malta: journalists must be able to pursue their work without fear and without interference from the government; that is essential to democracy.

Critics argue that international delegations who visit Malta can paint a superficial, one-sided picture of the current situation here. Can you comment?

I think we have seen this reaction when we have visited some other countries too, but I have to stress that we do this all over the world. We band together as a freedom of expression and freedom of the press organisation to go on missions where there are particular concerns and, as I said to the Prime Minister on Monday, we would have never imagined coming to Malta to undertake a mission such as this. And yet here we are, and this has been brought about by the heinous assassination of a journalist and the continued impunity a full year later.  There is still a movement of people who want justice, who want answers, who want to encourage reporting. The turnout at the vigil was good, and it was a beautiful outpouring of support. We also have to encourage the people concerned to leave the memorial alone: interfering with it is counter-productive and just damages Malta’s international image.


 

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