The Malta Independent 4 December 2021, Saturday

Four years later: A nation still in shock

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 17 October 2021, 09:30 Last update: about 3 months ago

Four years ago, Malta was in shock.

Investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia had been brutally murdered metres away from her home in Bidnija.

Her car had been blown up.

Within minutes, Malta was at the centre of the world’s attention.

International media picked up the story from the reports that were carried online by Maltese news portals. Foreign journalists started to call and others booked flights to follow the story in person. Maltese stringers working for foreign news agencies were inundated with questions about the assassination, and the reasons behind it.

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In those frantic hours, little was known, although it was immediately clear that Daphne had been silenced because of what she had written, or what she was about to write.

We know more today. Court sittings involving the men who are accused of masterminding her assassination and executing it have thrown some light, although it is believed that so much more is still to emerge. One of them has already confessed and was sentenced to 15 years in jail. The others are still waiting for their trial.

The intricate web that, little by little, was spun to suffocate Daphne’s writings is now, little by little, being disentangled.

Today, four years later, Malta is still in shock.

We are still to get over it. Perhaps we never will.

 

Birth of civil society

Hours after her assassination, thousands of people gathered in St Julian’s in what was a collective show of disdain. Another similar event was held in London. The “spontaneous” demonstration was the largest Malta has ever seen.

It is probable that those behind the killing never imagined what their plan would have triggered. They must have thought that it would be forgotten quickly, that the assassination would have been erased from collective memory in the short term.

But the scenes we saw that night were just the start of a movement of people who were brought together with one aim – that to see justice being done. They, and thousands of others who were at home, were appalled and disgusted.

The murder activated a sense of civic duty that had not been seen before. Attempts had previously been made, but it was only after Daphne’s murder that civil society managed to make a breakthrough in Maltese way of life.

In the past, it was just the political parties and politicians who had a strong voice. Today, civil society has a strong voice, too. Some would say that civil society, today, has a voice which is stronger than the party in Opposition.

There are arguments that civil society groups should not have politicians or people who were in politics in their midst, both as activists and also as lawyers. It is said that the absence of politicians would give them more credibility, as it would free them of any partisan links. Very often, these groups are accused of being too close to the Nationalist Party – or at least, the “establishment” within the PN. So when they said nothing on awkward situations regarding people who are close to them, it was not a surprise that they were criticised for holding back.

There are also arguments that these groups come across as having a few members who believe in classism and elitism, and this kind of attitude does not help their just cause. Without them, these groups would be stronger and possibly attract a wider selection of people.

But there is no doubt that they have grown in stature in these last four years. They have made an impact on society, and have taken stands that pushed the government into carrying out changes, or at least attempt to. They have not been afraid to speak out. Their ideas have added value to ongoing debates. What they need to understand however is that they should be more selective in their battles. Saying something just to appear to be present sometimes has the opposite effect.

 

The 16th

Since the day Daphne was killed, the 16th day of the month has been a day of remembrance.

What have become known as vigils have been held on each and every 16th day of the 48 months that have passed, and there is no plan to stop them anytime soon. When the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions prohibited them, the events were held online.

Speeches are delivered to say that the fight for justice continues unabated, that people who carried responsibility for action or lack of it are still holding on to positions of power, that so much still needs to be done for the rule of law to prevail and that Malta is still suffering the consequences of bad leadership.

But civil society groups are not just associated with Daphne and, as some of their members like to say, they are continuing her work for a better Malta.

They have been vocal on many occasions to highlight the inefficiencies of the country’s institutions and the government’s reluctance to carry out all the changes that are needed for them to work better. They have been at the forefront of calls for accountability and responsibility, and have often held protests or events clearly intended to push the government into taking some form of action.

Sometimes they have succeeded, at other times they did not. But they were not discouraged.

 

Attack on media

The assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia was not just the killing of a woman, a wife and a mother.

It was also the assassination of a journalist and, as such, it was an attack on the media in general.

The silencing of a journalist – in this case, the murder of a journalist – is in itself an attempt to stifle information, stop investigative reporting and prevent the truth from surfacing.

It is, therefore, no wonder that what happened on 16 October 2017 led to such repercussions that still reverberate today. Journalists all over the world saw it as an attack on their profession, and this is why the aftermath of the assassination is still being followed in great depth by the international media.

Like us, they want justice.

For years, the media in Malta has been under siege, and this siege culminated in Daphne’s assassination. But let us not forget that, in 1979, the Times of Malta offices in Valletta were attacked, ransacked and set on fire. The media was not silenced then, and it was not silenced after the Bidnija car bomb.

In more recent times, attempts to bring the media to its knees have been made via what are known as SLAPP suits, intended to financially cripple news outlets and to intimidate journalists. We have been told that the government is planning to introduce anti-SLAPP legislation. “We are not only determined to move in that direction… but we also want to be at the forefront of introducing anti-SLAPP legislation,” Prime Minister Robert Abela said recently.

Let’s see where this takes us.

This is not all. In recent weeks there have been coordinated attacks aimed to discredit the media. Websites have been cloned to offer “fake news”, and we have been told that the police are investigating. This is an extremely serious situation which needs to be dealt with accordingly.

 

Lessons

A public inquiry that was held to investigate the murder ruled that the State was to be deemed responsible for the assassination. It had not lifted a finger to defend Caruana Galizia and provide the necessary protection. It had allowed a culture of impunity to fester, failing to acknowledge the “real and immediate risk” that the journalist was facing because of her investigations.

In a nutshell, the board of inquiry confirmed what had already been said time and again after the assassination.

It also made a series of recommendations which are aimed at establishing a better system of checks and balances. It must be said that, with Robert Abela as Prime Minister, things had already started moving in a better direction. But much more needs to be done, with the board of inquiry making specific suggestions as to how good governance could be better implemented.

More than two months have passed since the board of inquiry published its report, along with the recommendations. So far, the government has not given any signs that it intends to execute what has been proposed.

It may be because it needs more time. It may be because the report was published when Parliament was in recess. It may be because an election is approaching.

But it would all be in vain if the valid suggestions that have been put forward by the board of inquiry are ignored.

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