Six months after Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination shook the world, attacks on journalists across the EU are becoming a new reality.
On a Monday afternoon last October, six months ago today, journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia finished what would be her last blog post, closing with the now well-known lines: “There are crooks everywhere you look. The situation is desperate.” Around half an hour later, she was killed by a car bomb that detonated as she drove away from her home in Bidnija, Malta.
Caruana Galizia was a courageous investigative journalist known for her relentless and detailed exposure of corruption, including through her blogging and her reporting on the Panama Papers. Her murder shocked the world. The blatant assassination of a journalist in broad daylight in an EU state was simply unthinkable. But six months later, it is sadly becoming a new reality. Journalist Jan Kusiak and his partner Martina Kusnirova were murdered in Slovakia in February. Journalists in Bulgaria and Croatia have reported receiving death threats in recent months. It also emerged that nearly 200 journalists needed police protection in Italy in 2017.
Many of these attacks and threats have been against investigative journalists who report on corruption and organized crime, making it more important than ever to understand the conditions that allow for such attacks to happen, and how they might be prevented. But in the case of Daphne Caruana Galizia, despite the arrests of three men suspected of carrying out the attack against her, the pursuit of justice has so far led to more questions than answers.
Progress of the Investigation
As the UK bureau director for Reporters Without Borders (RSF), I travelled to Malta in March in part to attempt to get some information about the progress of the investigation into Caruana Galizia’s murder. I requested a meeting with Police Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar to discuss the investigation. Despite multiple e-mails and calls, I received nothing but a perfunctory acknowledgement from a police constable.
My request piqued some interest in the local media. I was asked about it in several interviews. The Dutch ambassador to Malta, Joop Nijssen, even weighed in on Twitter: “Hope @rebecca_vincent gets requested meetings.” People started to comment on it everywhere I went, with many joking that I should have invited him for rabbit — a reference to footage Caruana Galizia had published showing Cutajar leaving a restaurant famous for its rabbit dishes and refusing to comment on a breaking scandal related to Pilatus Bank in April 2017. But there was still no response to my request, despite the fact that I made it clear that RSF’s interest was in the independence and effectiveness of the investigation.
However, there was plenty of other business to attend to, as a cluster of hearings in 26 separate libel lawsuits against Caruana Galizia was taking place during my trip, on March 1. In total, 34 civil libel cases continue against Caruana Galizia posthumously, as under Maltese law, it is the plaintiff’s decision whether to withdraw such cases in the event of the defendant’s death. At the time she was murdered, Caruana Galizia had been facing a total of 42 civil defamation lawsuits, as well as five criminal defamation lawsuits; the criminal cases were de facto closed upon Caruana Galizia’s death, per Maltese law.
The 34 cases that continue have been brought by powerful figures in Malta, among them Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, his Chief of Staff Keith Schembri, Minister for Tourism Konrad Mizzi and businessman Silvio Debono — the latter of whom has filed 19 separate suits against Caruana Galizia for a single blog post of 19 sentences. The lawyer acting for Debono in these cases, William Cuschieri, is also the defense lawyer for one of the three suspects currently arraigned in connection with Caruana Galizia’s murder.
Despite the high number of proceedings scheduled on March 2, nothing substantive really happened. Some cases were postponed due to the lawyer’s illness, some were postponed as the lawyer asked for more time, and the 19 cases filed by Debono were postponed as the lawyer failed to bring any witnesses to court. One of the witnesses, who represents a government entity, Projects Malta, was held in contempt of court for failing to appear.
Despite the frustrations of the courtroom experience that day, it gave me a glimpse of what Caruana Galizia was facing at the time of her murder: a constant barrage of vexatious lawsuits that served as a sword of Damocles, an ever-present threat that had already resulted in her bank account being frozen the last eight months of her life, that could have seen her jailed at any moment, and that diverted significant time from her journalistic work. This was on top of the extensive harassment and threats she had been receiving for years.
Salt on the Wounds
Whilst in Malta, I also took part in a vigil on 2 March marking 10 years since the launch of Caruana Galizia’s blog, Running Commentary. More than 200 supporters gathered at Parliament Square and progressed to the makeshift memorial to Caruana Galizia at the Great Siege Monument outside the law courts in central Valletta. I had taken part in other vigils in London since Caruana Galizia’s murder, but there was something very different and incredibly moving in joining her supporters in Malta.
Despite having worked closely on Caruana Galizia’s case for months, until I actually traveled to the country it was not clear to me just how embattled her supporters remain. These are not only her personal supporters, but Malta’s pro-human rights, anti-corruption movement. Yet they are frequently attacked by supporters of the Labor government, through an elaborate and incessant range of pressures, from microaggressions to more blatant acts, such as smears in the media and the repeated destruction of the memorial to Caruana Galizia.
After the March 2 vigil, the agitators were considerate enough to wait a full two days before destroying the memorial again in the dead of night — a spiteful act seemingly aimed at rubbing salt in the wounds of Caruana Galizia’s loved ones and supporters. Perhaps destroying this powerful visual time and again is also intended to remove it from the curious glances of the many tourists who walk past the central location — so many, in fact, that some tour guides have begun to include it in their stops.
Within the day, the memorial was back up, more prominent than before. As Caroline Muscat, co-founder and journalist of investigative outlet The Shift News, wrote, Caruana Galizia’s supporters would be there bigger, bolder and stronger with each attempt to silence them: “It is going to take so much more than removing some flowers and candles to silence calls for justice following the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.”
Just as the calls for justice continue in Malta, so do RSF’s abroad. In London, we are gathering today for a vigil to honor Caruana Galizia’s life and work and to call again for full justice for her murder, in parallel with similar actions taking part in cities across Europe and in the US. We are also holding an event at the House of Commons to mobilize members of Parliament in this case. It is our hope that such actions will increase pressure on the Maltese authorities — who clearly care about their international image — to ensure full justice for this horrific attack.
Six months on, the challenge remains to sustain international attention to Caruana Galizia’s case, and to build momentum for demands for full justice for all those involved in the planning and carrying out of her murder. The masterminds as well as the perpetrators must be identified and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Anything short would not only be an injustice for Caruana Galizia, but would also leave the door open for further attacks on journalists. A clear and resolute message must be sent that violent attacks against journalists will not be tolerated, not in Malta, not in broader Europe, not anywhere, for an attack on a journalist anywhere is an attack on journalism and, in turn, an attack on democracy itself.
*[This article has been updated.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.