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Daphne Caruana Galizia, my inspiration, four years on

As we mark the fourth anniversary of the assassination of the formidable Maltese journalist, we must continue her fight for truth and justice

Alice Taylor
16 October 2021, 12.00am
A memorial to Daphne Caruana Galizia at Malta’s Court of Justice in Valletta
Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

It was one of those hazy, autumnal afternoons where the light sifted through the blinds casting long shadows across the bed. I lay there on 16 October 2017 at around 16:15, dozing and pondering what the topic of my next column would be. I was in Cyprus at the time, visiting friends. Suddenly, the phone that lay next to me jolted to life with LED flashes and tinny vibrations. I picked it up and swiped my thumb across the screen, wondering what the sudden influx of notifications could be.

“They got her...Daphne is gone,” a message from a friend read.

Some 20 minutes prior, a car bomb had detonated in Bidnija, Malta. Daphne Caruana Galizia, the country’s most formidable journalist, my fellow columnist at a national paper, and my inspiration, had been assassinated.

Less than an hour before I received the message, Daphne had published what would be her last ever blog post. Its final lines, “There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate,” would become her famous last words. They would also continue to define both the circumstances of Daphne’s murder and Malta writ large.

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After publishing the article, she got in her rental car and set out for an appointment at her local bank. Just several metres down the road, a bomb that had been placed underneath the passenger seat detonated, causing an explosion that engulfed the car in flames and catapulted it through the air into a nearby field.

Back at the house, her son, Matthew, heard the explosion and ran barefoot to the scene. He later described being surrounded by debris from the car and parts of his mother’s body.

After reading the first message, I opened Facebook and scrolled through my timeline. The words on the screen danced in front of me, blurry and indecipherable as I choked back tears. My head pounded as I stood up and walked to the balcony, simultaneously refusing to believe what I had read but also knowing that something many of us had always feared had come to pass.

Daphne Caruana Galizia was and remains a formidable force. Her name has become synonymous with truth, strength, perseverance, and exceptionally hard-hitting journalism. She was meticulous and dedicated, unearthing countless scandals that went right to the core of the Maltese government. Daphne was fearless and an inspiration to generations of current and future journalists, myself included.

If it wasn’t for Daphne, I might not have quit my law firm job to become a journalist.

While I knew I could not be the same as Daphne, I analysed her writing, took notes on her methods and marvelled at how she dealt with the fallout from her stories. I saw a strong and fearless woman, and when I, too have come under attack for my writing both in the same newspaper she wrote for, the Malta Independent, and others, I thought of her and persevered.

When she was murdered, a part of me crumbled. I questioned where I would find the strength to continue and, for some time, I considered quitting journalism altogether.

Who was Daphne Caruana Galizia?

Daphne Caruana Galizia was a brilliant journalist who unearthed countless scandals. She took no prisoners, ruthlessly demanding that those involved in corruption be held to account. As well as her weekly column in The Malta Independent and her role as editor of Taste & Flair magazine, her blog ‘Running Commentary’ was one of the most-visited sites in Malta. On peak days, its readership could surpass 400,000, at a time when Malta’s population was 467,999.

But her work and her tenacity made her a target. She feared no one and consistently published stories other outlets wouldn’t touch. This came at a price; she was verbally attacked, trolled, had her house set on fire. Her dogs were murdered, she received death threats and had countless libel cases filed against her. At the time of her death, almost 50 vexatious defamation cases were pending against her. Most were filed by disgruntled politicians and officials who were annoyed that their seedy deals had been exposed.

The Maltese Labour Party and its supporters vilified Daphne and made it one of their main priorities to dehumanise, denigrate and humiliate her. In fact, an investigation by The Shift News found that private Labour Party Facebook groups were used to stir up hateful frenzies against her and coordinate seemingly ‘organic’ attacks. Members of these groups included the disgraced former prime minister, Joseph Muscat, as well as the president and senior members of his cabinet.

What’s the state of play four years later?

After her assassination, the state was slow to move. After police arrested two assassins in December 2017, the investigation would have likely stopped there without public pressure.

Muscat initially refused to open a public inquiry on the circumstances around the assassination and whether the state could have prevented it. But pressure from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, led by rapporteur Pieter Omtzigt, an international legal team representing Daphne’s family, and the Maltese public, meant that in September 2019 the state was forced to succumb.

Reporting in 2021, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the inquiry found that the state “should shoulder responsibility” for her assassination. A culture of impunity had been created, contributing to a situation where Daphne was isolated, harassed, and finally murdered. The inquiry also highlighted the police’s failure to protect her when she was alive and the multiple failures in their investigation of her murder.

But of course, no one has resigned, and no charges have been filed against anyone implicated by the inquiry’s findings.

In the meantime, mass protests over Daphne’s murder and the corruption it exposed forced Muscat to give up his position. Local oligarch, Yorgen Fenech, is set to stand trial after being charged with alleged complicity in Daphne’s murder. He denies the charges.

Fenech was also the owner of 17 Black, a secret offshore company that allegedly laundered money, and CEO of Tumas Group. Both companies had been at the heart of scandals investigated by Daphne.

Here you can see a timeline of the trial, demonstrating its tedious and often convoluted progress.

The general feeling among those who knew her, loved her, and continue to fight for her is that we may never see justice for all of those involved. The rot runs too deep, and those who likely were aware or involved in the planning of her murder will do all they can so the truth doesn’t see the light of day.

But that won’t stop us from fighting.

What happens now?

All we can do now is fight. This is partly one of the reasons I have turned to advocacy, as well as journalism. I am a firm believer that the pen is mightier than the sword.

In a statement released following Daphne’s death, Kiran Nazish, founding director of The Coalition For Women In Journalism (CFWIJ), said: “Her murder is an astonishing reminder that we have failed to protect journalists doing the most important work.”

As journalists, we must continue to write. We must continue the stories that Daphne could never finish and ensure the world does not forget that justice is yet to be served. We must ensure she lives on in our work and in the minds of the public. This means pursuing investigations, calling out the rule of law failures, and holding corrupt politicians to account. But it also means we have to protect and support the journalists and media workers around us, particularly women.

As women, we are more likely to be violently threatened and harassed online, and the nature of this is inherently gendered. Allowing these attacks to pass us by means being complicit in a crime and being party to creating a state of impunity. It’s our duty, both as journalists and at the CFWIJ, to document every violation against journalists, as well as to stand by those targeted and support them in every way possible.

In 2020, according to analysis by the CFWIJ, there were more than 700 physical, judicial, and online threats made against women journalists – up from 219 the previous year. These figures are just a drop in the ocean of all the violations against media workers that took place – too many go unreported and are assumed to be the price journalists must pay to continue their work.

I recently joined CFWIJ as their partnership associate and I have seen how the coalition’s advocacy work draws attention to threats facing women in journalism and is the first step in the fight for accountability. I also feel that we are doing our bit to try and prevent other murders from happening. There is still progress that needs to be made. Since Daphne’s assassination, too many journalists have been killed in Europe and across the globe.

16 October is a deeply painful day for me and many people I know. But it’s also a day to remember just how critical journalists are to democracy and the functioning of our societies. It should also serve as a stark reminder that we, all of us, must do more to protect and support each other.

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