In the days following the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, an empty page appeared in the Malta Independent instead of her regular column, “Daphne on Thursday”. More than two years after her death, Caruana Galizia continues to occupy a large space in Maltese public life.
The case has significant ripple effects – not only in the political life of Malta but also for the freedom of the press worldwide, say experts.
Waves of protests have enveloped Malta since November 20. On Monday, protesters occupied the offices of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. Matthew Caruana Galizia, the journalist’s son, says the case “has plunged the country into a political and constitutional crisis. The crisis has driven Malta to the brink of a revolution.”
Muscat announced on December 2 that he would resign as leader of the governing Labour Party on January 12.
Galizia was killed in October 2017, when a bomb in her car detonated as she drove away from her home in Mosta. An independent journalist, Caruana Galizia used her popular blog, Running Commentary, and her regular newspaper columns in the Sunday Times of Malta and the Malta Independent to report on corruption, nepotism and patronage in Malta’s governing party. During the final months of her life, she received several death threats.
The prime minister has defied criticism, stating that he had shouldered responsibilities “in the interest of the case”. Experts have, however, criticised the Maltese government for the slow progress in effectively investigating and prosecuting the case.
A criminal case against the perpetrators has been opened, and is currently in the “compilation of evidence” stage. According to Jean-Pierre Gauci, a Maltese scholar and senior research fellow at the British Institute for International and Comparative Law (BIICL), it could still take many years to achieve justice.
The prosecution of crimes against journalists remains very rare. A UNESCO report, Intensified Attacks, New Defences, released in November 2019 highlights the low prosecution and conviction rates of crimes against journalists. According to UNESCO, nearly 90 percent of those responsible for the killings of 1,109 journalists globally from 2006 to 2018 have not been convicted. In another new report, Reporters without Borders (RWB) calls on countries to complete unresolved cases.
Matthew Galizia attributes progress in the case to the work of the family, the support of NGOs and the support of a higher authority – namely, the Council of Europe.
Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), says the awareness of threats to media freedom triggered by the murders of Caruana Galizia and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has been “unprecedented”.
Cases such as Caruana Galizia’s often receive “an immediate burst of attention” in the direct aftermath of a murder, Simon told Al Jazeera, but the success of a prosecution depends on “the ability to keep the issue in the public eye”. Simon says the best mechanism to fight crimes against journalists is the media itself, and that the media should not cease to shine the spotlight on cases such as this.
The Malta case is unusual, Simon added, in that the prime minister has agreed to resign from office, indicating a measure of accountability at the highest political level.
According to Agnes Callamard, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, the public reporting of the killing of a journalist is also a form of justice. In addition to justice carried out in courts, justice can also be obtained “in the court of public opinion”, she said.
The work of the Galizia family has been a key factor in raising awareness of the need to hold those who kill journalists accountable, said Callamard. Speaking to Al Jazeera on Monday at a conference on media freedom at the Al Jazeera Public Liberties and Human Rights Centre, Callamard emphasised the importance of the tireless activism of family members. She further mentioned the importance of the work of NGOs and civil society activism in Malta.
Matthew Galizia says he and his two brothers had kept his mother’s legacy alive through the creation and work of the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation. Galizia recognises that it is not always possible for family members to be active in calling for justice, since in many countries governments pay “hush money” to the families of slain activists.
One of the unusual initiatives taken by Galizia and his brothers was to bring their mother’s case to the attention of the Council of Europe. As a result, the Council appointed a special rapporteur to investigate their mother’s killing.
Council of Europe
Pieter Omtzigt, Member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and Rapporteur on the Daphne Galizia assassination, said the Council of Europe’s resolution on Malta was “very tough” and had a number of demands, for example, an independent public inquiry had to be set up within 100 days.
“That inquiry has been set up and that would not have been the case if it had been left to Malta,” sais Omtzigt. “If Malta does not improve, it runs the risk of being put under monitoring. That is a very intensive supervision mechanism where there are great deficiencies of the rule of law. It has never been applied to EU country before.”
Omtzigt adds: “It is very unusual for the Council of Europe to become involved in a case of a single murder. The Council has only done so twice before, both in cases concerning Russia.”
With respect to media freedom, Malta is a small country with the potential to have a major impact on the landscape of media freedom. The protesters gathering outside the prime minister’s office chanted “Gustizzja, gustizzja” (“Justice, justice”). Their calls will continue to reverberate beyond Malta’s shores.
“Beyond justice in this case, there is clearly a need for a process of healing for the country, a large part of which has lost confidence that justice will ever be done,” Gauci the Malta scholar concluded.
“The arrest and prosecution of all those involved in the murder of Daphne will go some way towards healing that rift in Malta – but will not end that process.”