The killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia brought about change in many people’s lives. Hers was ended. And dramatic, brutal killings are normally expected to bring about change beyond the shattering pain they cause to those closest to the victim.
Within 48 hours of the explosion that killed her, journalists from the local community – many, not all – marched down from City Gate to the memorial in front of the court building declaring their pens would conquer their fear. They expressed human solidarity with the victim’s family and professional solidarity with each other. It looked like a statement of what journalism in Malta would be like every day after that: bold, defiant, unhindered by the obstacles put up to bar it from the truth.
What’s the picture like today, a year later?
Malta’s State broadcaster all but ignores the aftermath of and the fallout from that assassination. The State broadcasters of the UK, Italy, Germany and France produced films about the state of affairs in Malta and the context in which a journalist has been killed. Malta’s persistently ignores the matter. That underlines a permanent feature of the media realities of Malta. The national broadcaster enjoys residual but in many respects unjustified credibility with a section of viewership that buys into the aura of formaldehyde neutrality and acceptw that what the broadcaster leaves out of its news does not exist.
The alternative to the State broadcaster is an abomination for a country that calls itself a democracy. Thirty years ago, giving political parties broadcasting licences was a liberating turning of the other cheek after years of iron curtain censorship. But soon it turned into a perversion of journalism incomparable with anything in the rest of the world: a cacophony of untruths, vile spin and hate-mongering.
Those protesting journalists last year said pen conquers fear. Perhaps it does. But in the hands of criminals and tyrants media are tools to instil fear. Just because it does not always work does not mean the attempt is not utterly reprehensible.
Consider how the Labour Party’s media dealt with the British national broadcaster covering the context of Daphne’s killing in a way the Maltese national broadcaster would never do. The BBC’s Steve Reese interviewed me. One TV reported that fact under the heading that I am leading “a campaign against Malta”. Anywhere else such a notion would be laughable. But here it works and the intended effect is chilling and fearful.
Let me explain. Viewers of party-owned news – a huge chunk of the population for whom their party station is the only source of information they are prepared to look at – are by definition prone to a siege mentality. What else can explain their willingness to distrust the spin of one station against any other interpretation of the truth?
A siege mentality is very easily excited by notions of attacks from outside. Quite what they imagine the BBC would hope to achieve by “attacking Malta” requires imagination. But they quickly stand to attention at the call of their party’s command to smoke out the enemy within, the traitors who are informing and collaborating with the enemy at the gates.
I used to know someone who was what I can never be: someone whose pen conquered all fear even when she was left to fight alone. Until they killed her
Sure enough the moment that One TV report about my collaboration in a campaign against Malta came up, the Labour Party’s vigilantes got to work. My Facebook page was flooded by messages of trolls, most not anonymous, recommending my exile, my arrest, my punishment, even my suicide. People will tell you about heat and kitchen but if someone is setting the restaurant on fire and they taunt you for running for your life, they’re not challenging you to conquer fear, they’re giving you a choice between running and dying.
All this would be metaphorical if we did not now live in a country that is different from the country we lived in a year ago. A year ago we lived in a country where a journalist was unbearably harassed. Now we live in a country where a journalist has been killed.
Of course foot soldiers of this army of fear do worse than post publicly on Facebook. They send anonymous messages, ominous and unmistakable. They scratch your car to let you know they know where you live. They heckle you in the street and there are times when things can get quite ugly.
Even before One TV showed footage of me committing the treasonous crime of speaking to a UK journalist, the sight of collaborating with the foreign press often brings out reactions in people that every day crimes would not. I was answering questions in Marsaxlokk some time ago to German journalists who wanted to understand the significance of the Electrogas scandal. The local Labour Party grandee rounded up a small army of fanatics to intimidate the journalists working here. They didn’t fear for their life: the ragtag bunch of Viva Josephites were not as scary as they hoped to be. But they meant to be.
As is typical of tyrants, these vigilantes are recruited to look spontaneous, to give the impression out there that people are so enamoured of the great leader that they are willing to go out of their way and express their anger. But they’re anything but spontaneous. They are mobilised, trained, dispatched and rewarded for their services.
The effect? Journalists are identified as enemies of the people and therefore all they say is to be considered as a weapon to be deactivated and then blown up in a controlled explosion. If you think about it the notion that even speaking to “foreigners” about displeasure with one’s government could be considered as treasonous would have sounded barbaric to the mediaeval mind. After all even the harshest critics of the government do not conceive of taking up arms against it which would be the qualifying test of treason from the antediluvian mentalities the Labour Party wants its people stuck in.
Is it fair and complete to assess the state of journalism in the country by one’s own experience? Perhaps not. But I know that journalists who do not work for the State or for political parties here testify to similar experiences. Propagandists for either partisan side are recognised as doing their job. There’s a reluctant mutual respect for propagandists of the other side as their fanaticism and economy with truth are taken as a given, given their line of work.
But the act of asking uncomfortable questions to the powerful and of not taking their answers at face value that is another business altogether. I would like to think this constant war of attrition does not defeat me or slow me down. I would like to think the pen conquers fear. I would like to think I still go where I know the trolls and the hecklers, the threats and the insults would come out of the whole like critters from a cave. But I know I’m not made of the mettle that knows no fear. I know that because I used to know someone who was what I can never be: someone whose pen conquered all fear even when she was left to fight alone. Until they killed her.
I’m marching in protest this afternoon in Valletta as will those people who want to believe that solidarity and defiance can help overcome fear in the fight for what is right. It doesn’t matter what you’re angry about – corruption, environmental degradation, bigotry – you first need to fight for your right to fight.
They will not need to blow you up if they’ve managed to shut you up already.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece