“There have not been any real reforms in Malta since the release of the public inquiry’s report,” Rebecca Vincent, Director of International Campaigns for Reporters Without Borders, told a Berlin audience on Wednesday evening.
“What happened to Daphne could still happen today.”
The global press freedom organization hosted a panel discussion that asked how journalists can work in a climate of intimidation and impunity, with particular focus on the situation in Malta four years after the murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
“Some progress has finally been made in the criminal investigations,” Vincent said, “thanks in large part to international pressure from press freedom organizations and journalists,” but the climate for journalists in Malta has not changed.
In many ways, it has gotten worse.
Caroline Muscat, founder and managing editor of The Shift, described what it’s like to work in a country where a leading investigative journalist was killed in broad daylight with a massive car bomb in order to stop her investigations into corruption at the heart of government.
“We are very used to working in a highly divided, polarized society,” she said, “but we never expected a journalist could be killed.”
In investigating the campaign the government waged to discredit Daphne Caruana Galizia and her stories, Muscat discovered “a concerted effort to control those few independent journalists” in a country where the media landscape is completely dominated by the two main political parties.
She described The Shift’s infiltration of the Labour Party’s online hate groups that targeted Caruana Galizia and other dissidents, and exposed the ways in which they were used to discredit reporting critical of the government.
At their peak, these groups contained some 60,000 members, including high ranking politicians and their senior staff.
“That may not seem like much to someone from a larger country,” Muscat said, “ but in Malta it totalled about 15% of the electorate.”
The hate being directed against Daphne was characterized as “freedom of expression”: if you have the right to criticize us —the government, powerful politicians — then we have a right to criticize you. Few seemed to understand that it is not acceptable in a functioning Western democracy for the government to use its power to attack those reporting on its actions.
The public inquiry into the assassination confirmed the major role that political propaganda played in her murder.
It is now clear that Caruana Galizia was killed to stop her investigation into the Electrogas energy deal. The Shift picked up that and other stories in an effort to send a clear message to the perpetrators: Even if you kill a journalist, you don’t silence the story.
But how can a journalist stay safe in a country where the full weight of government is turned against its critics?
“I knew we had to modernize how we do investigations,” Muscat said, “mainly through collaborations with other newsrooms.”
The stories Caruana Galizia was digging into revealed that Malta is a hub for corruption and money laundering which spreads through Europe and beyond. The Shift soon found a powerful niche investigating major deals in Malta, and helping other newsrooms trace cross-border connections to much larger stories.
“The best tools we have to protect ourselves from the climate of hate is to use our investigative skills,” Muscat said. “The power to publish, to continue to expose the facts that we find, to inform the public.”
But even when exposing major stories, the few independent journalists in Malta face the difficulty of pushing back against a dominant narrative being spread by an army of trolls that prey on the populace of a country with no media literacy, and where citizens were used to being told what to think by the political party they gave allegiance to as part of their personal or even family identity.
“There’s an acceptance of this pressure as normal,” Vincent said, “but it isn’t.”
The Shift is routinely excluded from government press conferences, despite its journalists being internationally accredited, and the government refuses to reply to questions or provide information which should be publicly available.
“One person from The Shift’s full time job is filing Freedom of Information (FOI) requests,” Muscat said. The government typically waits for the full 45 days before replying, and then requests a 45 day extension. Even when a handful of FOI requests are finally accepted, the government challenges the data commissioner to prevent the information from being released.
“This week alone we have 18 cases before the tribunal on appeal,” Muscat said. “We shouldn’t have to fight for this. Time spent on this takes away from doing normal journalism.”
“Prime Minister Abela portrays his administration as different,” Vincent said. “He is less combative than Joseph Muscat, but his government continues to withhold information from journalists that should be in the public sphere.”
Vincent described the public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination as a landmark ‘world first’ which could serve as a model for other countries to improve the safety of journalists, but so far the government has done nothing to implement the board’s recommendations.
“RSF has offered the prime minister our assistance on any of these issues,” Vincent said, “but he has yet to take us up on this.”
The government is currently discussing the creation of an independent commission to examine the state of journalism in Malta and, ultimately, to implement the inquiry’s recommendations, but critics fear they will attempt to control the process by filling its positions with Labour Party loyalists.
Such actions would be a natural extension of a process which has dragged on for nearly four years. The Public Inquiry itself only came about through the threat of legal proceedings and a landmark resolution from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which was secured through extensive advocacy by the Caruana Galizia family and international civil society.
Reporters Without Borders is watching these negotiations closely to ensure the committee really is independent.
“Every time international attention fades, there is regression,” Vincent said. “It’s important that the international community continues to hold Malta to account.”
“From where we are to where we need to be is a huge jump,” Muscat said, because Malta has a habit of ticking boxes on paper but not really doing anything about it in practice.
“Daphne cannot have died in vain. There must be a positive outcome, if such a thing can be said about an assassination.”