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A public inquiry judges us, not the assassins

So, the Foreign Minister, Carmelo Abela, states that the government’s intention is to hold an independent public inquiry within three months, as has been demanded by the Council of Europe. The Office of the Prime Minister insists that what Abela said is identical to what the Prime Minister said last month. In response something odd happens: the media flurry about wondering if the statements really are identical.

Why all the reading of the runes? The media should take the OPM at its word. The headlines should have read: OPM confirms a public inquiry within three months.

It doesn’t matter if last month Joseph Muscat was less than clear. There’s no need to pore over Muscat’s original statement to decipher its real meaning. If Muscat says his own statement is identical to Abela’s, then we should hold him to what Abela clearly said.

If Muscat wants to argue that’s not what he really meant, then it’s his job to show us why Abela’s statement didn’t mean what it says. Until then, it’s the plain answer that clarifies the ambivalent one, not the non-committal statement that changes the meaning of a plainspoken assurance.

Now we can get on with the job of specifying what an independent public inquiry means. So far it’s not been clear that the government has understood. Until now it has objected that a public inquiry will interfere with the murder investigation. How can it?

The investigation is one thing, the inquiry another. They have different objectives. They even have different people in the dock.

The criminal investigation aims to discover a secret known by around half a dozen people at most:  who killed Daphne. It aims to establish guilt in a court of law.

The public inquiry aims to assess the context of the assassination. Much of what it will assess is public knowledge: the threats against Caruana Galizia, the political targeting, the lack of police protection…

Admittedly, not all the relevant knowledge is public and not everything can be heard in public. Did the secret service have any inkling of the assassination plot before it happened? Public testimony might put other investigations at risk.

In the main, however, the inquiry will seek to assess what is already known. Its target will be any system failures in the State’s obligation to protect Caruana Galizia’s life and her right to pursue journalism without undue harassment.

The target of the inquiry should not exclusively be the current Labour government. The inquiry can, for example, see fit to assess whether the governments of Lawrence Gonzi and Eddie Fenech Adami failed to set a benchmark of what is unacceptable in the treatment of a journalist.

We’re all in the dock. Maltese public culture – what we let pass, at least without too much complaint – will be under judgement too.

The public inquiry will not be assessing guilt. It will be primarily assessing responsibility, culpability and negligence.

The inquiry could assess certain arguments still made about Caruana Galizia — like that she was a “hate blogger” — and which are used to justify why she merited ‘special’ treatment.

If Glenn Bedingfield wants to testify that his blog was simply giving her a taste of her own medicine – as he’s been happy to tell the international media – then of course he can. If Neville Gafà wants to say that he never stalked her, or that it was justified in the circumstances, of course he can. If Tony Zarb wants to bring up the matter of her jubilation when Dom Mintoff died – as he wanted even the BBC’s Radio 4 to know – fine, let him do it.

But this time there will be a formal inquiry assessing these claims. And perhaps at long last we will be able to have a sombre verdict on whether all this was freedom of expression or something more sinister carried out by government aides.

Hence why it’s crucial for the inquiry to be independent and seen to be so.

The inquiry will be concerned with the assassination of one of us. Was her death shaped by Maltese society and its failures?

A proper public inquiry would be nothing less than a Truth and Justice Commission, excavating some home truths about our public culture and bringing us face to face with its daily injustices.

The inquiry will not be dealing exclusively with the past. Women like Tina Urso and Caroline Muscat are being subjected, even now, to treatment very similar to that received by Caruana Galizia. Are they fair game? Or are the system failures still letting us all down?

Seen that way, an independent public inquiry will be nothing less than an appointment with ourselves. A charade would ridicule us all.

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