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November 2, 2017 - Updated on November 7, 2017

Investigative journalism’s uncertain future in Malta

Credit: Matthew Mirabelli / AFP
The murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, a well-known Maltese journalist and anti-corruption blogger who was responsible for many sensational revelations in the course of her career, has sent an unprecedented shockwave through Malta’s journalistic community, which is now hesitating between surrendering to fear and continuing her mission to inform with determination.

Nearly three weeks after her 16 October murder, hundreds of people attended her funeral in Malta on 3 November, which was declared a national day of mourning by the government. At the same time, eight leading European media outlets representing the entire international press published an open letter calling for an “independent investigation” into her murder.


Caruana Galizia’s murder, which beggars belief in a European Union country, has sounded a traumatic alarm for Malta’s journalists, one from which they are struggling to recover.


The message transmitted by Malta’s journalists for the past three weeks has been one of solidarity, but their fear and uncertainty is palpable. “When they targeted Daphne, she wasn’t the only target, it was much more than that,” one of her colleagues told RSF in Malta.


Even if the targeted car bomb that killed Caruana Galizia was the sixth in the space of a year in this small island nation of 430,000 inhabitants, her death has had a profound impact. “Many people, myself included, are still in a state of shock following Daphne’s murder,” Times of Malta columnist Michael Briguglio said. “We are robbed of peace of mind.”


“The fear has affected all Maltese, who are now even scared of posting messages on Facebook,” said one of the few freelance journalists based in Valletta, asking not to be identified.


This fear is all the greater as self-censorship was already the rule for the many journalists living in Malta, where they feel “colonized by gangs of crooks who are above the law,” to use Briguglio words. “Some journalists sit on their stories,” said Caruana Galizia’s sister, Corinne Vuela. “Daphne was the only one who constantly held people in power to account, using her personal, self-funded blog to break her big stories.”


Fighting fear under corruption’s long shadow


Despite the fear and anxiety, the determination of Malta’s journalists is all the stronger for the mission they feel they have been bequeathed by this pioneering reporter’s death.


“This attack on one of us will not stop us from shining a light where others want darkness,” Times of Malta online editor Herman Grech said in the statement he read out at a march on 19 October. “The attack on one of us will not muzzle us. The attack on one of us will not stop us from fulfilling our role as a watchdog to the institutions. We will stand up to intimidation. We stand here today to give hope to society.”


People see the need for unity, in order to combat the problems that beset Maltese society, especially as Caruana Galizia’s murder bears all the hallmarks of corruption and organized crime, as does much that goes on in Malta.


“There is an underworld in Malta, a parallel world of illegal trade and corruption,” said Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of RSF’s European Union desk. “The Maltese people who pay tribute to this journalist know full well that without the voice of journalists it will be hard to shed light on some of this island nation’s realities.”


Obstacles to the truth


In Malta, everyone knows that the truth never emerges without pressure from journalists, but it is extremely difficult for journalists to report the facts in a fiscal paradise there financial secrecy reigns and the defamation laws pose a significant obstacle.


Malta’s politicians are quick to file lawsuits when investigative reporting sheds light on their activities or threatens their interests. Journalists and media outlets are often forced to pay exorbitant damages. Caruana Galizia alone was the target of 42 libel suits at the time of her death.


When she reported in a blog post in February that economy minister Chris Cardona and his consultant Joe Gerada had visited a brothel while on an official visit to Germany, four simultaneous libel actions were brought against her and a total of 47,460 euros in her bank accounts were frozen as a precautionary measure.


She responded with condemnation of the disproportionate nature of these measures and a damning assessment of the state of journalism in Malta: “The negative effect it will have on the freedom of the press is immense, because now it is not only libel suits which journalists have got to be wary of, but also precautionary warrants which freeze their bank accounts until the case is concluded. We should not be surprised that journalism is in severe decline in Malta, that fewer people wish to be journalists, that journalists are afraid of doing their job properly, and that corrupt and abusive politicians are winning the game.”


Reports received by RSF confirm this. In July, a Maltese journalist told RSF: “Last week, journalists from the Times of Malta and Malta Independent were illegally pressured to reveal their sources by a magistrate and the police (they resisted and didn’t reveal anything). Sources are also being harassed by the police with vexatious criminal investigations, when the government finds out who they are.”


Polarized journalistic community


Malta’s media also have to deal with the fact that they are extremely divided, like Maltese politics and society as a whole, with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s centre-left Labour Party on the one hand, and the centre-right nationalists on the other.


“The polarization is very strong here and it has always been that way,” said a close colleague of Caruana Galizia who requested anonymity.“We have always had the feeling that the Labour Party and its supporters regarded journalists as their enemies. You can be independent and not support any party but, whatever happens, you will be seen as belonging to one or other of the families.”


This polarization complicates journalism even more in a country where there are no journalism schools, no journalists’ unions and no other form of association among those working in the media.


What the Institute of Maltese Journalists (IGM) says about itself on its website is eloquent on this point. “The Institute of Maltese Journalists was founded as The Malta Press Club on 3 November 1989,” the website records. “Previous attempts to set up a journalists’ association all failed after a few months, partisan political reasons almost inevitably contributing towards their downfall.”


The IGM has the merit of existing, but so far it has just reported attacks on journalists “without defending us, without taking any action that has produced results,” one of its members said.


Despite having little influence, the IGM took part in the big demonstration on 22 October in Malta and asked the police and judicial authorities to respect the confidentiality of the data on Caruana Galizia’s electronic devices, including her sources. Protecting the sources of a journalist dubbed “a one-woman WikiLeaks” is just one of the many challenges for the journalistic community in Malta, which is ranked 47th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.