“In Malta, I have the impression that journalists, especially investigative journalists, are marginalised, with the risks they are facing being as big as they were at the time of Daphne’s murder,” Pavol Szalai, the head of Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) News Bureau for the EU and the Balkans said in an interview with The Shift.
Szalai was drawing a comparison between his home country of Slovakia, referring in particular to the assassination of Ján Kuciak and his girlfriend, Martina Kušnírov in 2018, and Malta. RSF, along with other international press freedom organisations, is visiting Malta on the fourth anniversary of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination.
“In both countries, a journalist was killed because of their investigation on corruption, with the alleged masterminds in each of these countries yet to be convicted for this crime,” Szalai said.
“Both of the alleged masterminds have links to the ruling party in their respective countries. Before the killing of these journalists, both countries also had warning signals about the deteriorating environment for journalism in general as well as the individual security of both journalists,” Szalai added.
RSF, which has had a consistent presence in Malta since Caruana Galizia’s murder, has also played an important role in international efforts to scrutinise the Maltese government’s handling of the investigation of the murder as well as the country’s overall issues in terms of press freedom.
Szalai believes that “societal backlash” in Slovakia has led to significant convictions and sentences, including a 19 year sentence for financial crime committed by the alleged mastermind of Kuciak’s murder, Marián Kočner, and a 14 year sentence for Slovakia’s former attorney general on charges of corruption.
While this backlash has led to investigative journalism being “at the centre” of the public debate in Slovakia and an increase of support overall, Szalai argued that a similar reaction in Malta did not occur, reiterating his point about journalists in the country remaining “on the margins”.
“Although Daphne was killed before Ján was, Slovakia is further down the road to justice in that case. Specifically, all perpetrators were convicted, along with the intermediaries. There is a new trial set to start next month for the alleged mastermind and his associates, as well,” Szalai explained.
“This is where we can see how difficult the case of Daphne in Malta is, in comparison. You can see that justice in Malta is too slow and insufficient, especially by EU standards,” he added.
RSF also commented on the public inquiry’s findings and recommendations, arguing that the board of judges that determined the state must shoulder responsibility for facilitating Caruana Galizia’s assassination through a climate of impunity was an act of “calling things as they really are”.
Previously, RSF’s international campaign coordinator Rebecca Vincent had visited Malta to follow court proceedings related to Caruana Galizia’s murder as well as to show solidarity and give support to media outlets when the entire nation was waiting for the public inquiry board’s report back in July of this year.
“This public inquiry has groundbreaking importance and it is now absolutely capital that the recommendations are duly implemented to achieve press freedom in Malta. So far, the government has done very little to nothing when it comes to implementation,” Szalai said.
“We are expecting nothing less than full implementation of the inquiry board’s recommendations as they would address most of the press freedom issues in Malta,” he added.
Szalai also spoke about RSF’s Press Freedom Index and the fact that Malta remains the 3rd worst country in the EU, beaten only by Hungary and Bulgaria on the list. He cited the fact that no action has been taken against Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) as one of the main issues.
“Online harassment campaigns of journalists and access to information are still issues as well. At least 50% of FOI requests are refused, according to what we know, based on various justifications or reasons, with information that does come through often being incomplete,” Szalai said.
He also admitted that it was “hard to believe” seeing public media outlets like PBS’ TVM toeing the ruling party’s line, describing the political party stations’ domination of the local media landscape as “unprecedented” in the EU. In Poland, where a similar domination takes place, Szalai reports receiving similar feedback, arguing that it is wrong for public media to be seen as property of the ruling party and the state.
“I cannot imagine working as a journalist and being told to submit my topics for approval 15 days before they are broadcast on television, where it is all the more incomprehensible,” Szalai said, referring to news reports of PBS’ editor-in-chief sending a memo to all current affairs producers demanding prior notice of topics to be discussed.
When asked about what RSF’s perspective on the future of their four-year campaign in Malta and whether they plan on continuing it, Szalai did not mince his words.
“We are here because justice has not been done. There has been no trial for the perpetrators or the instigators of Daphne’s murder. We will come every year until full justice is done,” he said.