50.50: Opinion

My sister Daphne was murdered. We want justice for women journalists

Corinne Vella, sister of Daphne Caruana Galizia, spoke on an openDemocracy panel about her sister’s struggles and the legacy of her work

Corinne Vella
10 May 2021, 12.08pm

It wasn’t always clear [that Daphne would be a journalist] – because women weren’t journalists when we were growing up.

Women were largely confined to the sidelines of journalism, women’s issues and that sort of thing. There weren’t journalists in newsrooms and there weren’t journalists writing columns, and there certainly weren’t women writing columns in their own name – so she was quite new and there was no example to follow when we were growing up.

But that said, she always did like writing, she always did like reading, and I suppose if there had been role models when we were growing up, it’s probably something she would have thought of doing.

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What’s harder to talk about is that she was killed three and a half years ago. And she was killed right outside her own home, minutes after leaving her son at home, on the way to a bank. It was in broad daylight, and there was a bomb in her car, which she didn’t know about and it killed her – and ever since then we’ve been pushing for people to be brought to justice.

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One of the ugliest things about her murder is that, when you look back, you can see that it was always going to happen. Things had escalated before she was killed, there were more and more libel suits, there was more hostility, she was more and more isolated – and eventually the inevitable happened.

We had to push back against all the misinformation around her, she had been discredited so badly, and professionally; her stories were being challenged and criticised, and she was being accused of making things up. So that was all the stuff we had to deal with when she was killed. It took a while for people to understand that she really was killed because of her work. And now we know for certain, because people are being prosecuted for it, for her murder.

Justice for Daphne

The [Daphne Caruana Galizia] Foundation works in two areas. One, it’s committed to keeping up the fight for justice [for Daphne] because it’s nowhere near done yet. People are being prosecuted, but no one’s been convicted except for one person – he admitted his part in the murder – and he only did that because he got a reduced sentence. We know that the case is still open, the police are still investigating and it’s a much bigger case than we might have understood initially.

The other work that we do at the foundation is that we try to move beyond Daphne’s case alone. It sounds ambitious – but to fix the system, as it were, to look at what’s missing, what’s broken, what needs to be fixed and to push for changes to be brought about. And that means legislation to protect journalists, but also mechanisms to protect journalists, not just in Malta but across Europe.

Lawsuits and harassment

When Daphne was killed, there were 47 different lawsuits pending against her. Five of those were criminal lawsuits, which meant that the ultimate ambition of those lawsuits was to have her put in prison. Those lawsuits collapsed on her death, because you can’t prosecute someone criminally when they’re dead.

But the other lawsuits, the civil ones, they were inherited by her family. And until recently, more than 20 lawsuits were still active. Somebody filed 19 lawsuits against her and he only recently withdrew them, and that was after years of hounding Daphne’s family for money, after she was killed.

How did she cope? With great difficulty. It's incredibly isolating to be the only one breaking stories and pursuing a story when people hurl so much abuse at you and make it so difficult. She did keep going, but it was very, very difficult. It’s only now that we have taken on so much of the work of pushing back against the abuse she faced, and all the misinformation about her and the attempts to discredit her, that we really start to understand just how bad it was for her. She was dealing with all this practically on her own.

There was some support, occasionally. The most egregious example came after one of the ministers in Malta at the time filed two lawsuits against her, and his assistant filed another two, and they claimed under a false oath in court that she was lying about them – so they had the basis for having her bank accounts frozen. The day she was killed, she was on her way to the bank to try to sort out the problem. She had no access to her own bank account.

There was incredible pressure, but the attempt to freeze her bank account, to prevent her from having any sort of financial autonomy, that created such a huge public backlash that somebody set up a fund for her. They collected enough money to compensate for the garnishee order – within 24 hours or so. Unfortunately, the garnishee order remained in place, and she did not have access to her own money when she died.

It’s an incredibly vicious tool to use against a person, to mount an attack like that – online, offline, in the courts, harassing the person individually. It is a very isolating experience and it makes the job very, very difficult.

Don’t assume that this is part of [the journalist’s] job; this shouldn't be happening, it is not at all normal. It happens and it happens regularly, but it is not part of your job. And no woman journalist should ever think that this type of harassment – supposedly ‘harmless’, as they put it, because it's only happening online – is normal. Because what happened in Daphne’s case is that it became normalised that people would behave in this way towards her. And then it got worse and worse. And then the inevitable happened.

When you look back, it’s like watching a train crash in slow motion, it was always going to happen. When you see online attacks accelerating, which can so easily spill over into a physical attack, it’s an incredibly dangerous situation.

Hope for the future

If I didn’t have any hope before, I certainly do now, having heard everyone today. I am hopeful because there’s never been a more important time for journalism – there are so many changes going on across the world, there are so many things going on in supposedly safe areas like the European Union. We’ve seen journalists killed – Daphne, unfortunately, was not the only one. There’s a huge need for more and better journalism. Women can go places that many men can’t go, and tell important stories, and it’s encouraging to see that there are good strong women who continue to do that, despite all the obstacles they face.

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