Updated to include the government’s reaction.
“Evil tends to wither under the bright light of publicity”, was just one of the responses on social media to the news that the Council of Europe had approved a report into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia and the rule of law in Malta.
Those were the words by American-born British financier and economist Bill Browder on Twitter. Browder, who lobbied for the Magnitsky Act, a law to punish human rights violators, thanked Special Rapporteur Pieter Omtzigt “for helping bring some small measure of justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia and her family.
— Bill Browder (@Billbrowder) May 29, 2019
His comment was just one of many from the international human rights and media freedom community who all applauded the news.
The report, entitled “Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination and the rule of law in Malta and beyond; ensuring the truth emerges”, listed 10 concerns on the investigation into the journalist’s death and found “systemic failings” in the rule of law in the country.
The report imposes a three-month deadline on Maltese authorities to launch a public inquiry into the circumstances around Caruana Galizia’s death, including the question of whether it could have been prevented and who ordered her assassination.
The Malta Head of Delegation and Labour MP Manuel Mallia, accompanied by Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi from the government side, presented a list of objections and amendments to the report, but they were all rejected in a three-hour long committee meeting that included the participation of PN MP Jason Azzopardi from the Opposition.
Omtzigt told The Shift News: “The meeting took three hours because the committee addressed each of the concerns raised by Malta, one by one. And one by one, they were rejected”.
Mallia had tried to remove the Special Rapporteur’s mandate early on, but failed. The government then moved to attempt to discredit Omtzigt even before the report was drafted.
Caruana Galizia’s son, Paul, highlighted this fact in a Tweet:
In the bottom left corner are two @maltagov MPs, there to first try and delay the report's approval indefinitely and, failing that, amend it so that it's completely stripped of any calls for justice.
— Paul Caruana Galizia (@pcaruanagalizia) May 29, 2019
Flutura Kusari, legal advisor at the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECMPF), called on Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to “establish the inquiry and to stop using legal tricks” to avoid fulfilling the country’s obligations under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
Agnes Callamard, Director of Freedom of Expression and a UN Special Rapporteur, described the murder of Caruana Galizia as one of the “key scandals” of Malta’s dysfunctional system. She welcomed the CoEs decision: “(The) rule of law in Malta is seriously undermined by the extreme weakness of its checks and balances”.
Transparency International described Omtzigt’s efforts as “crucial” for justice for the journalist’s murder. In the Corruption’s Perception Index published by the organisation, Malta experienced one of the sharpest declines in recent years.
“This significant drop comes as no surprise more than one year after the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was killed while reporting on corruption and who posthumously received the 2018 Anti-Corruption Award,” the report states.
The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) welcomed the news of the adoption of the Special Rapporteur’s findings.“We call on Maltese authorities to implement the report’s recommendations without delay, in the interest of achieving justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia”, said EFJ General Secretary Ricardo Gutiérrez.
— EFJ (@EFJEUROPE) May 29, 2019
The statement also refers to the “compelling evidence” that the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff Keith Schembri and Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi are “involved in serious cases of abuse of office, corruption and money laundering”.
The EFJ quotes the CoE report, stating that they have “refused to take political responsibility” and “continue to benefit from the protection of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat”.
Eight leading press freedom and human rights watchdogs had called for support for the mandate and conclusions on the report.
Article 19, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, Reporters Without Borders, IFEX, the International Press Institute, Transparency International and PEN International joined the EFJ in a statement calling on the Council of Europe committee to endorse the report.
The government reacts
Despite all 50 of its proposed amendments to the report by Omtzigt being rejected, the Maltese government insisted yesterday that the Special Rapporteur’s findings were “riddled with inaccurate and gratuitous statements exposing a very biased agenda which is not based on the true picture of the matter”.
The government complained about the leaking of the draft report before it was debated in committee and insisted the report should not yet be public even after it was adopted. “The report itself is a reflection of deep animosity against Malta,” the government said in a statement.
The government said Omtzigt was not the right person for the role and again questioned his abilities by referring to his assessment of the MH17 disaster over Ukraine – not for the first time. The Prime Minister himself cast doubts on the Special Rapporteur even before the report had been drafted, calling him a ‘friend of the Opposition’.
“The report in fact represents the very biased views of a small fraction of Maltese Opposition politicians who appear to have kept close to the Rapporteur and who have formed alliances with various vested interest groups who, for one reason or another, have an interest in damaging Malta’s reputation and in isolating Malta from Europe,” the government said.
Government officials, MPs and Party candidates have used the same line against Opposition candidates, activists and journalists exposing government corruption in Malta.