An online event co-organised by the Justice for Journalists Foundation (JFJ) and the Foreign Policy Centre (FPC) to mark the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists featured a powerful discussion about what the campaign for justice for Daphne has achieved, what obstacles remain and what can be done to push for meaningful change so that independent journalism can be better protected in the future.
Hosted by Lana Estemirova, the panel was formed by Paul Caruana Galizia, journalist and son of Daphne Caruana Galizia, Caroline Muscat, Founder and Managing Editor of The Shift, Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, Barrister at Doughty Street Chambers and Rebecca Vincent, Director of International Campaigns at Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
The discussion opened with Paul Caruana Galizia describing how the courts in Malta were used as an extension of the harassment towards his mother and how this type of harassment intensified after 2013. He explained that when his mother’s reporting was beginning to have a global reach, so did the threats of legal action against her and she began to receive letters from law firms in London.
The issue surrounding the use of SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation) as a weapon to silence journalists was further elaborated by Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC who, using the term ‘lawfare’, elucidated what an insidious tactic this is, not only because there is a lack of awareness in legal circles outside those that are directly involved but also because there is no legal basis in these threats.
She went on to say that those lawyers who do send out these “legally incoherent” letters are not complying with their professional obligations, adding that those who do this must be held to account, through the establishment of a professional regulatory body and by naming and shaming those law firms that deploy SLAPPs against journalists.
The Shift’s founder Caroline Muscat detailed how she received the first threatening SLAPP letter a mere three weeks after setting up The Shift and proceeded to describe how she was presented with the choice to either fight it or shut down, further noting that every single independent newsroom in Malta has been threatened with at least one SLAPP.
Muscat also explained how independent journalists continue to be isolated, ignored, and harassed by those in power and detailed how thanks to a distorted media landscape, government critics, including activists, journalists, and anyone voicing dissent are identified and targeted using a self-feeding cycle of party media and social media platforms. “There’s a whole cycle of hate reserved for those who dare to speak out”, she added.
Muscat noted that this attitude towards dissent is so problematic that it was also one of the points mentioned by the Co-Rapporteurs of PACE Monitoring Committee that expressed grave concern over the“deeply-rooted political and social polarisation” of Maltese society, with the rapporteurs stressing that they had met several activists and journalists who had explained how they faced harassment and trolling on social media and “outright threats to themselves and their families”.
The public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination was also at the core of the discussion. Caruana Galizia and Gallagher described how the campaign for the public inquiry came about and Vincent described the vital role that international press freedom organisations and the concerted effort by the Council of Europe, played in getting the Maltese government to set up an independent public inquiry. An inquiry that the government fought every step of the way.
Vincent observed that the progress in Daphne Caruana Galizia’s case has been remarkable not least because of the thorough, independent, and excellent work that was undertaken by the board of the public inquiry. She described the board’s findings as a “crucial moment for Malta” adding that in this respect Malta “could be a role model for other countries”. Gallagher however underscored how the Maltese government had made no arrangements to have the report translated, a choice that did not go unnoticed by international observers.
This brought to the fore the next challenge. The speakers agreed that the implementation of the public inquiry’s recommendations was going to be the focus of the next campaign for justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia and for securing an improvement in media freedom in Malta. Caruana Galizia said he had hoped that upon the publication of the public inquiry’s report, the government would snap into action, but he noted that “this is turning into another campaign”.
“There’s no way we’re going to let the public inquiry gather dust in a drawer,” Muscat added.
Despite the challenges and frustrations touched upon throughout the discussion, there was still room for hope. Daphne’s son hoped that people will begin to see that journalists are on their side, while Muscat noted how one of the most encouraging outcomes in the last four years was the growth of civil society in Malta.
Gallagher also mentioned how, thanks to the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, the world will be paying attention to the plight of investigative journalists everywhere but perhaps the most succinct cause for hope came from a remark by Vincent who when describing RSF’s international campaigns, noted that “everything seems impossible until it isn’t”.