A most deadly year

For journalists reflecting on this deadly 2017, the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia still has blood freshly dripping off the last page of this year’s chapter.

Daphne Caruana Galizia after meeting with the PANA committee in February. She was brutally assassinated using a car bomb in October
Daphne Caruana Galizia after meeting with the PANA committee in February. She was brutally assassinated using a car bomb in October

Much has been said of Caruana Galizia: the woman that haters loved to call hysteric and conspiratorial, the journalist who certainly hated anything Labour, possibly the working-class and inelegant voter base that historically was enfranchised by the Labour Party, and the person who became a depository of information that was embarrassing to the social circles and politicians who feared the way she wielded the sword of shame. She thrust private citizens into the public limelight if it suited her ends of hitting Labour, but then again she also kept the powerful on their toes (when Labour came to power in 2013, that is…).

It was also through her blog that a war of words spilt into the Maltese social media landscape, where stories like ‘Egrant’, still the subject of a magisterial inquiry albeit with no evidence revealed in public when the story broke, became one of the most divisive subjects ever. The 2017 election was precipitated by the inquiry that followed on the complaint of the Prime Minister over the Egrant allegation. On social media, zealous believers clashed with ‘moderates’ and ‘unbelievers’ with anger and bitterness: those who did not buy into Egrant were in league with Labour’s corruption; those who did not fall in line with the Forza Nazzjonali ‘coalition’ were traitors to a cause. It was one of the most tense and unsustainable groundswells of political antagonism to have ever hit the Maltese islands. Maybe only those who invested in it, those in the ‘echo chamber’, were seeing it. When Labour won by an unprecedented 40,000 majority, us in the press never saw it coming.

This newspaper may have had little affinity with Caruana Galizia, except that in moments of solidarity it stood with her when her front door was set on fire by fascists (just like this newspaper’s owner’s), and just weeks before a minister’s garnishee order hit her, this newspaper decided it would not collect libel damages it won against her.

For even in the miasma of disagreement and bickering, journalists do recognise each other as members of the same tribe.

And most certainly, ours has become a daily reflection on the mysterious circumstances that brutally took the life of Caruana Galizia. For only a mafia, a criminal organisation whose members are not just executioners, but must include respectable people who are assisting an operation to launder money and conspire for power, could be behind the death of a courageous journalist like Daphne Caruana Galizia.

It is useless to lionise, or even demonise Daphne Caruana Galizia at this point. When the threat to the fourth estate is such a clear and present one – ranging on one end from the pleasure taken by those in power at the pressures on the media to survive, to the other end where the murder of a journalist is considered an option – it is everybody’s business to demand that justice is made. And that is why the public must remain thirsty for this justice, to see the authorities go beyond the successful arraignments of the three men charged with the murder of Caruana Galizia, and to find the person or persons who commissioned this assassination.

In death, as in life, Caruana Galizia set the agenda in 2017. Our Christmas specials in today’s edition of MaltaToday look back at life reporting on politics, media, the law courts, and women’s rights, and find Caruana Galizia popping up at various points in our discussions. As journalists we make no reservations about her courage, but where we are accustomed to leave the facts speak for themselves, we took issue about her black-and-white judgements of the people she wrote about.

Many were the stories written this year that contradicted her erroneous conclusions on stories where tiny facts could spin out of control once in her hands. But earlier this week, the sale of Vitals Global Healthcare, a husk of a healthcare company that was created to repackage three Maltese hospitals into an equity flip for an American healthcare giant, brought back to mind Caruana Galizia: she called out the proverbial horse manure when the project first came through, suspicious of the intentions behind the privatisation. It becomes impossible not to speculate, on the back of the work she put out at the time of the Panama Papers, what role those secret offshore companies could have played had this enormous scandal not been revealed by the ICIJ.

And it was precisely this thinking that she had shared when, together with the editor of this newspaper, she was interviewed by the PANA committee of the European Parliament. She gave a rundown of so many privatisation projects that are conveniently handled by the specialised Projects Malta arm, with their own episodes of contracts being delayed for publication, and wondered aloud: what if the Panama Papers had never been revealed, and news of the offshore companies belonging to two Malta PEPs directly involved in negotiating and setting up these contracts, not emerged? Would we have not been none the wiser as the sale of these assets, whatever the market logic and wisdom might be, progressed unhindered?

As Ranier Fsdani wrote earlier this week, there are gradations of like and dislike about Daphne Caruana Galizia, the newsmaker of 2017. Those who are shocked at her death, and those who think ‘she had it coming’, those who like Occupy Justice and the Civil Society Network want justice done, perhaps in different ways than others, and those who celebrate the role of the police in the recent arrests. And it is in these gradations that we also have to understand why so many people chose Labour in 2017 and, as opinion polls we publish today, still trust Muscat as prime minister. It is not the black-and-white world that those on social media think it is.

But as journalists, we must take the best of what Daphne Caruana Galizia offered. Not the toxic commentary that gave her audience their daily dose of schadenfreude, but her intuition and courage when it came to joining the dots of what laid before her. Irrespective of our disagreements with her or her style, as journalists we will always be reflecting on her work when we face up to power with the only weapon we have at our disposal: the power of the question.

A Merry Christmas to all our readers.