The slaying of Dahpne Caruana Galizia is equivalent to Malta’s 9/11: it has changed everything. We never imagined that something that usually happens in countries of the likes of Russia would happen in quaint Malta – the event has singularly violated our innocence. That’s why a genuine, spontaneous outpouring of grief has morphed into the depiction of Daphne as something larger than journalism: a freedom-fighter who used journalism to crusade against sleaze. In death she has become the heroine who stood up to corruption and criminality and paid the ultimate price.
The nature of the assassination has bolstered this narrative. She could have been eliminated less dramatically by a sniper’s bullet. The use of a massive car bomb is a statement in itself: it infuses the slaying with political drama, it gives the assassination an edge of triumphalism and intransigence, it serves as a statement that whoever probes as Daphne did will be blown to bits. In this sense, large car bombs have always been an act of huge political significance.
And that is partly why the story has reverberated around the world. It has captured the imagination of the world’s media, the slaying has become the largest and most ubiquitous story arising from Malta since the hijack of the Egyptian plane in 1985. Three major international newspapers – The Guardian, The New York Times and The Financial Times – penned strident editorials about the slaying and the wider political context that created the conditions for the assassination.
The Guardian editorial mentioned the “atmosphere of impunity and violence that have taken hold in the Mediterranean archipelago”, adding that Malta is “turning into a state run by, and resembling, organised crime”. In another article it called Malta a “mafia state”; the Daily Mail called Malta a “gangster state”.
A lot of the coverage rages against the country’s ‘dodgy’ industries: an online gaming industry reportedly infiltrated by the Mafia, unprincipled sale of passports that is letting shady oligarchs into Europe, a convenient base for tax avoidance. Virtually all the coverage mentions Daphne’s leading role in the Panama Papers investigation in Malta, and pointedly reminds us that the protagonists remain in power.
It’s as if the government has not grasped the political significance of the event
All these scathing stories did not go off the moment the bomb ripped through Daphne. They had been bubbling up for a few years in the form of sporadic coverage of Malta’s endemic corruption, the secret Panama companies of people at the heart of power, the scheme to sell passports, and the companies domiciling in Malta to avoid paying taxes. And among foreign journalists and the politically-engaged these stories drip-fed an idea of a country whose economy relied on inflows of dirty money. That idea, bubbling below the surface, then suddenly found a dramatic news peg with the slaying of Daphne: the assassination became a lightning rod for this wider coverage about the ‘rotten state of Malta’ (as one article put it). That’s how the media works; it pounces on a story and runs with it when something happens that gives that story immediacy and relevance.
It will now take Malta a generation to recover from the reputational battering it has taken in the world’s media. No one would imagine now, for example, that the European Medicines Agency would even remotely consider relocation to Malta.
But what is more troubling is that the government has remained unfazed. The Prime Minister, by virtue of addressing the press early after the news broke out, took charge of the government’s response. It’s a response that has mostly focused on the investigation. And that shows that the government has failed to appreciate the wider significance of the event, that this has been our 9/11, the day the unthinkable happened.
Of course, the Prime Minister disappointed many who voted for PL by retaining Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri – I had thought, as many others within the PL did, that reelection would give him the audacity to keep them out of government.
In the more immediate situation there have been no resignations. It’s not even clear how the investigation will evolve. A press conference by the police bordered on the farcical. Shockingly, because the investigation is in the form of a judicial enquiry (our penchant for magisterial enquiries is a throwback to colonial times), the investigation’s findings may never be made public (unless someone is charged).
There have been no new initiatives on tackling widespread corruption and abuse of power, no new measures announced on how key institutions of law and order (particularly the courts and police) are going to be cleaned up from the rot that’s set in so deeply, no announcements that the sale-of-passports scheme will be reviewed. It’s as if the government has not grasped the political significance of the event. The government appears to be in paralysis.
And that is ominous because, in a State that is failing us in the essential duty of dispensing justice in all its forms (including dignity and equality), gangsters get the idea that they can get away with murder.
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