It is nearly three years since the assassination of investigative journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta. The criminal case against the alleged perpetrators is ongoing and so is the long fought for public inquiry into the underlying factors that enabled the assassination. At the centre of Valletta, outside the Courts of Justice, where these hearings are taking place is an impromptu memorial to Daphne, including photos, candles, quotes, slogans calling for justice and even excerpts from the Venice Commission’s findings on the importance of media freedom in Europe. Like the public inquiry this small but powerful overflow of public support had to be fought for, even resulting in a court case to prevent the state from destroying it every evening, as it had done repeatedly at the end of every day.
Daphne’s murder is writ large across Maltese politics, society and its approach to media freedom
I arrived in Valletta to observe both the criminal hearing and public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne, as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response. However, due to procedural delays, the criminal hearing was cancelled. The public inquiry took place on 31st July and featured David Casa MEP, who outlined how he received threats for investigated allegations of corruption and financial malfeasance. When he requested police protection due to these threats, his request was refused. The threats against him, mirrored in part those faced by Daphne in the years prior to her murder. Alongside verbal threats, the MEP was threatened to the extent that he avoided driving in a car alone. The threats included legal action by powerful and influential individuals to remove his parliamentary immunity. This endured for such a prolonged period that he commented that he felt safer in Brussels than in Malta and when he expected the state to protect him, they instead called him a traitor. This revealing testimony outlined a worrying but important issue; the prevalence of harassment and intimidation against those who speak out and challenge entrenched power in the public interest. This emerges from the same groundwater that made the murder of Daphne possible; harassment and threats can deter people from speaking out, it can isolate them from family, colleagues, their community and the system around them and can devalue their work. In addition, if they continue, these can be precursors to physical violence.
Financial relations between Malta and other countries
Focusing on the financial relationships between Malta, Dubai and other countries across the globe, Casa outlined the international nature of Malta’s rule of law crisis. While the rest of the hearing was closed to the public, Casa’s testimony documented a polarised media environment where independent scrutiny and journalism has a high personal and professional cost, and which continues to further isolate journalists and media workers, leading them to step back from sensitive but necessary issues.
From my time in Malta, this restriction of space within which you can hold power to account, extends to a number of issues. A number of outlets I met with raised issues about the increased polarisation regarding migration and Malta’s responsibility towards refugees and asylum seekers. This has resulted in an uptick in online harassment of journalists, as well as the entrenched assumption of political biases based on their reporting on migration. This has required a number of outlets to evaluate their safeguarding responsibilities to their staff. As refugees continue to make the dangerous journey to Europe, a complex situation to respond to during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is paramount to ensure journalists and media workers are able to report on this topic free from the threats of harassment and violence.
Intimidating legal action against journalists and media workers
Daphne Caruana Galizia was facing over 40 SLAPP actions at the time of her murder, a majority of which remain even after her death for her family to defend. SLAPPs – Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, have made Malta their home. However, countless other outlets around Europe are bearing the brunt of these costly, time intensive and intimidatory legal actions. Between 1 May and 26 June 2020, a US-based law firm, Lambert Worldwide and a UK-based law firm, Atkins Thomson sent legal letters to Times of Malta, MaltaToday, Malta Independent, Lovin Malta and The Shift News in relation to their reporting and journalistic enquiries on behalf of British/Azeri entrepreneur, Turab Musayev. The reporting revolved around a wind farm deal in Montenegro and alleged connections between Musayev and Maltese business owner Yorgen Fenech who is charged with complicity in the murder of Daphne. Meeting with a number of affected outlets demonstrated the sense of uncertainty that these threats bring with them. Will court proceedings follow on from the legal letters; will the outlets be able to afford defending themselves; would it be worth it; should they continue to cover this issue or is it not worth the jeopardy? These questions are par for the course when outlets are faced by SLAPP actions, and significantly limit their ability to report of matters of public interest without fear. SLAPPs are an issue that affect media freedom across Europe.
How can we improve the situation in Malta?
The criminal hearing and the public inquiry are steps in the right direction to attempt to dismantle the scaffold of impunity that has held opaque power in place in Malta for so long. But only time will tell if it can properly and robustly investigate the details and information raised by all witnesses, challenge untruths and call for evidence that some may wish to obscure. Further to this, MaltaToday staff I met with raised the point that while a new press law was brought forward, the promotion of out-of-court mediation or alternative dispute resolution mechanisms to dissuade costly court actions for defamation and other SLAPP actions remains unused. Without these responses, questions of cost and access to legal representation will determine how free the media in Malta is. Lovin Malta have gone further, identifying the ownership of media outlets by prominent political parties as a roadblock to a free, transparent and competitive media environment. This has led them, through their current affairs web TV show, Kaxxaturi, to raise money to mount a court case aimed at ending party-owned TV stations, One and Net. The outlet alleges that the formulation of these platforms are “contrary to the Constitution which demands impartiality from news and current affairs broadcasts.” Whether this ambitious goal will be successful, it proposes to dramatically reshape the media landscape in Malta.
I have been working on the situation in Malta for nearly three years, predating my time at ECPMF. Being in Valletta in person, meeting Daphne’s family and the journalists attempting to navigate the complex and problematic media landscape demonstrated to me the challenges the country faces to protect media freedom. Yet seeing members of the public scrutinise the memorial to Daphne, read the quotes and pause in front of her photo reminded me that when there are people willing to stand up for journalists and media workers, challenge injustice and demand transparency. All is not lost. Glimmers of light may bring forward changes that will ensure that what Malta has experienced in the recent history will not be repeated.