Journalists from across the local media landscape, together with activists, academics and intellectuals, wrote to the prime minister earlier this week urging him to open to the public any discussion he might be having on how freedom of expression in this country is to be better safeguarded.
Five years ago, a journalist was killed in a car bomb. At first, in the service of their own survival, the political authorities in this country tried to dismiss the event as an uncharacteristic freak or even as something the journalist brought upon herself through anything but her journalism. Political operatives indulged innuendo, suggesting that Daphne Caruana Galizia was the victim of matricide.
At length, an independent inquiry documented the causes of her death beyond the decision taken by a few individuals to pull a trigger on her and found just how unsafe it is to be a journalist in this country.
Much before the inquiry conclusions were published in July 2021, an Italian journalist published a book about Daphne’s killing in September 2018 with the title ‘L’isola assassina’. The title wasn’t hyperbolic. This country – its politics, its culture, its laws, its justice system, its law enforcement agencies, its polarisation, its party-controlled media apparatus, its popular indifference, or even hostility, to independent thinking and critical journalism – killed Daphne.
You would have thought that after such an experience, the country would look into itself and seek to learn lessons, find a path out of the disaster and become a better, freer, more democratic country.
Five years ago, many of us certainly hoped it would. As we mourned Daphne and protested the injustice she suffered, we hoped this would become a moment of catharsis for our country, a reckoning like Italy had when Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were killed, or Ireland when Veronica Guerin was killed.
Perhaps we are used to watching history in highly-edited form in sweeping narratives in books and movies. Perhaps we are desensitised to the barely-moving drama surrounding us. Eight people were identified on suspicion of being Daphne’s killers but none of them has yet faced a jury. A prime minister and his favourites were made to resign but none have seen the inside of a court dock.
An inquiry has freely investigated and reported on state responsibility in Daphne’s murder and listed a deuteronomy of recommendations but practically none of those recommendations has been adopted in our laws or implemented in practice.
There are thickly veiled signs that the government is readying itself to publish a legislative package that they present as the implementation of the inquiry recommendations to guarantee press freedom. The prime minister will, like he has before now, present himself as a latter-day Hammurabi of media laws. But unless the government heeds the appeal it received this week from the media community, the new laws will congeal the risks to free speech documented by the inquiry in a rapidly hardening false sense of security.
A free press is not a right granted to journalists. Nor is it a status in the gift of the government. Free expression (which includes academic liberty, artistic freedom, freedom of opinion, freedom to acquire and share information, the right to know what the government does, how it does it and how much it spends on it) is the most fundamental guarantee to every citizen of life in an open, plural, free and democratic society.
A prime minister and his favourites were made to resign but none have seen the inside of a court dock- Manuel Delia
The notion of legislating on how that right is protected by law without including in the process the people being protected – the population at large – is nonsensical. Or it would be unless you remember the record of the people writing the laws in secret.
The government is defending scores of appeals in court to prevent journalists from acquiring public records as part of their investigations into government spending and conduct. The government arbitrarily spends money in advertising with media through deals struck in smoke-filled rooms, including spending in media owned by the party in government, implicitly rewarding loyalty and punishing criticism. The government dodges questions from independent journalists using social media or media owned by its party to address the public bypassing scrutiny.
The ruling party uses its media to target critical journalists and denigrate them even as part of its electoral campaigning. So far, at least, it has refused to legislate against corporate bullying through SLAPP suits, misleading parliament with the false argument that such protective measures would in themselves be unlawful.
The government has already adopted laws ostensibly intended to improve transparency and openness but bringing up nothing but a false sense of security.
They passed a whistleblower protection law in 2014, updating it in 2021, declaring they would be empowering witnesses to come forward to denounce corruption. The law is replete with loopholes. It has been used in only one case, the manifestly baseless act of partisan persecution of Giovanna’s Debono’s husband. And it has forced into exile Maria Efimova, the whistleblower that brought Pilatus Bank down.
They removed time-barring on prosecuting politicians for corruption but they have stuffed law enforcement agencies with craven cronies to ensure prosecutions never happen at all.
For five years, the hope has never left that the government would prove us wrong and, this time, just this once, they do the right thing and make laws that might restrain their power, empowering instead citizens to keep an eye on the politicians they trust with their money.
We wrote to Robert Abela this week to tell him this would be a good time to break the silence and do the right thing.