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Disinformation Watch #10: The Blame Game: Government’s reaction to a journalist’s assassination

Daphne Caruana Galizia nine months
Banners set up to mark nine months since Daphne Caruana Galizia's death at the site where she was assassinated on 16 October, 2017, a few metres away from her home in Bidnija, Malta.

On the day marking nine months since the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, The Shift News shows the government’s blame game in relation to her brutal death, and the spin that circumscribed public outrage and risked derailing investigations.

Posters and banners continue to appear in various locations across the country asking a simple question: “Who ordered Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination?”.

It is a question that many fear risks remaining unanswered. The recent promotion of magistrate Anthony Vella to judge fuelled these concerns as suspicions of an attempt to derail investigations were voiced. MEPs Ana Gomes, Sven Geigold and David Casa referred to it as a way “to delay and stall the investigation”.

The government’s repeated attempts to draw a line under Caruana Galizia’s assassination is best expressed by Labour MP Glenn Bedingfield in his interview with journalists from Swiss digital magazine Republik.

“People just want to get on with their lives,” he said.

On the day marking four months following the journalist’s assassination, Labour MP Rosianne Cutajar took to Twitter to tell Caruana Galizia’s son, Matthew, that demands for justice were “embarissing” (sic). Cutajar also roped in Prime Minister Joseph Muscat in her post on the day citizens were renewing their calls for justice.

Rosianne Cutajar Twitter

In January, in what was to be their last unscripted interviews, the Prime Minister and Health Minister Chris Fearne in their respective interviews with BBC Newsnight and DW Conflict Zone focused on the arrest of three suspected hit men and attempted to end the discussion about the investigation with that. The result was Muscat earning the title of ‘Malta’s Artful Dodger’.

Dismissive statements by public officials and Labour MPs led PACE rapporteur Pieter Omtgitz to echo earlier concerns about the will to continue with the investigation into who ordered Caruana Galizia’s silencing and expressed deep concern about “the attitude and behaviour of certain senior public officials”.

The attitude and behaviour of public officials was also the subject of a live press conference on Thursday from Leeuwarden, the twin European Capital of Culture, where Justice Minister Owen Bonnici was grilled because of comments made by Valletta 2018 chairman Jason Micallef. Criticism was directed at Micallef’s Facebook post in which he used crowds on the streets on St Patrick’s Day to mock the journalist’s last words.

An analysis by The Shift News of articles, social media channels and groups used by the Labour Party to spread its message, shows that this effort to draw a line is just the latest in a prolonged and concerted effort to divert attention, shift blame and sow doubt and discord.

The Shift News investigation shows that:

  • Within a day of the assassination on 16 October 2017 in a car bomb a few metres from her home, officials within the Office of the Prime Minister started an aggressive campaign that continued across various Labour Party media channels linking Opposition Leader Adrian Delia, who had been elected only a few months earlier, to the assassination through ‘timing’. This helped distance the Labour Government from responsibility as well as increase pressure on an already fractured Opposition.Adrian Delia
  • Within hours, other officials and activists within the Labour Party worked to remind people about prior unsolved political murders in the tumultuous 70s and 80s period under another Labour government. This campaign culminated with the placing of photos of Karin Grech and Raymond Caruana next to Caruana Galizia’s at her memorial in front of the law courts in Valletta which, in turn, fuelled further vandalising of the memorial.Daphne Caruana Galizia memorial
  • While efforts were made to recall previous unsolved political murders, and without any sense of contradiction, some of the same officials and party activists also questioned why the murder was being referred to as a politically motivated one.
  • While it is difficult to pin-point the exact source that originally started the red herring that the bomb was made of Semtex (dispelled months later and confirmed as TNT), this was taken advantage of to push attention towards the then breaking story on fuel smuggling. The arrests of Darren Debono and Gordon Debono by the Italian police were linked to Caruana Galizia’s assassination in the media. This was later picked up by RAI on 21 October, 2017 and in turn used to further divert attention and dilute outrage.
  • The Hollywood-like arrests in December 2017, filmed from body cams and a helicopter, marked the start of an attempt to change the tune. From that point on, the main message was that the case in court should be allowed to run its course. This message was repeated last week in Leeuwarden by Bonnici, who said the government had achieved ‘success’ in the investigation in less than 50 days by arresting 10 people and charging three.
  • As calls for continued investigations into who commissioned the murder continued and as international pressure on the government intensified, attempts were made to blame members of the Caruana Galizia family for her death. They were accused of attempting to derail the investigation into who killed a member of the family. This message grew louder with the start of The Daphne Project which led to a counter campaign shared by OPM officials and Labour candidates, called the ‘Truth Project’.

All the while, officials and party activists sought to fuel hatred against Caruana Galizia by digging up extracts from a post by Caruana Galizia on the demise of former Labour Prime Minister Dom Mintoff and sharing them. This same rhetoric fed the Labour hate groups’ celebrations and continues to this day.

Celebration of Daphne Caruana Galizia's death in Labour hate groups
Celebration of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s death in Labour hate groups exposed by The Shift News.

Meanwhile, citizens at the forefront of the call for ‘justice for Daphne’ continue to be targeted, insulted and threatened on social media in an attempt to silence that call. Many others willingly resorted to self-censorship in an attempt to avoid repercussions on their work and families.

All this begs the question: why would officials and party activists engage in such blatant disinformation and propaganda about a journalist’s assassination?

Read more: Disinformation Watch

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