To mark the fourth anniversary of the assassination of Malta’s leading investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia, Malta is an opportunity to make history and take great strides in protecting journalists.
The country has a chance to initiate reforms that could be a blueprint for the rest of Europe and send a clear message that journalism is the crucial fourth pillar of democracy and that journalists should be supported and protected for their critical work, the public who To hold the powerful to account.
A struggle between the state and the people
When I first traveled to Malta as part of a delegation from human rights organizations in 2018, I noticed two things.
On the one hand, the furiously hostile denial of responsibility for the murder of Daphne, articulated by the government of then Prime Minister Joseph Muscat; on the other, the extraordinary power of the Justice Movement for Daphne and the high-level protests against corruption for which she was killed.
This battle between the state and its people took place on a daily basis as their family and supporters gathered at the protest memorial they had erected around the statue across from the courthouse in central Valletta.
For over two years, posters, candles and flowers in memory of Daphne were destroyed every night on the orders of then Justice Minister Owen Bonnici, who was responsible for the justice of her case.
Every morning the demonstrators replaced these tributes. This confrontation, better known in Putin’s Russia than in an EU capital, was only resolved by a 2020 Constitutional Court ruling that found that the Justice Minister had violated the protesters’ rights.
Today the memorial still stands, but justice for Daphne and the great corruption she exposed has yet to be achieved.
Pandora Papers remind us what’s at stake
At the time of her killing, one of Daphne’s lines of inquiry focused on top-ranking officials who were allegedly creaming off enormous sums of taxpayers’ money using offshore companies.
Her investigations, some of which were exposed in the Panama Papers, looked into trusts and a complex web of corrupt deals and kickbacks linked to the Azerbaijan state oil company SOCAR and Electrogas, a company part-owned by SOCAR, that held a monopoly on Malta’s state energy firm. The former head of Electrogas today stands accused of ordering Daphne’s death.
Four years later, we’re back in Malta to meet with the new prime minister, Robert Abela, about the recommendations put forward by a landmark public inquiry into Daphne’s assassination.
Its conclusions are astonishing and monumental, ultimately finding the state of Malta responsible for her death.
It also declares that the state “created an atmosphere of impunity, generated from the highest levels in the heart of the administration of the Office of the Prime Minister, and [that] like an octopus, spread to other entities like regulatory institutions and the police, leading to the collapse of the rule of law”.
Daphne’s story is a window into the importance of investigative journalism. In particular, it reveals the consequences of authorities’ failure to prosecute the crimes that journalists risk their lives exposing.
In early October, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published a two-year investigation into close to 12 million leaked documents exposing the financial and tax evasion practices of the rich and powerful, involving journalists across the globe.
From a UK business magnate’s lavish spending after the collapse of a company that cost thousands of jobs, to revelations about Azerbaijani officials’ property wealth in violation of anti-corruption rules, the Pandora Papers provide further proof of the role that robust investigative journalism plays in shoring up democracy.
Journalists across Europe under threat
Where there’s no justice for the crimes and malpractice these investigations reveal, journalists are left vulnerable, alone and unprotected in the face of powerful businesspeople, politicians and criminals with inordinately more financial, legal and PR resources than them, some of whom have lethal intent.
In this environment, we can only expect more journalists to be targeted in the way Daphne was. And since Daphne’s death, journalists investigating crime and corruption in Slovakia, Greece and the Netherlands have been murdered.
In all of these cases, no one has yet been brought to justice. This drives a well-founded belief among many journalists that the price for killing them is lower than the gains to be made through corruption.
It’s time to ensure that the murder of a journalist can never happen again. If Malta can end impunity for these crimes, and enshrine formal recognition of and concrete protections for media freedom, it could set an example for the rest of Europe.
The battle for justice for Daphne has gone on for too long. It’s time for Malta – and the rest of the world – to step up to protect our journalists who do so much to protect the rest of us.
Sarah Clarke is Head of Europe and Central Asia for ARTICLE 19, an international organisation working to promote freedom of expression.