[WATCH] Myriam Spiteri Debono: ‘Something good needs to come out of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s death’

She was sworn in as Malta’s 11th President of the Republic and 24 hours later Myriam Spiteri Debono sat down with Nicole Meilak to discuss her past and her future

'The best tribute that we can pay for Daphne’s life is to build the foundations so that whoever has the same profession she had can feel protected by the democratic set-up of our country' (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
'The best tribute that we can pay for Daphne’s life is to build the foundations so that whoever has the same profession she had can feel protected by the democratic set-up of our country' (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

On 4 April, notary Myriam Spiteri Debono took the oath of office and assumed her role as President of the Republic.  

In her first speech, she touched on sensitive topics, including corruption, the influx of foreign workers, and the deaths of Jean Paul Sofia and Daphne Caruana Galizia. 

Now, in an interview with MaltaToday, the new president continues to elaborate on how the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, as well as that of Karin Grech and Raymond Caruana, left deep wounds in the country. 

In a measured tone, she says all three murders differed. There was a clear motive to the murder of Karin Grech, while Spiteri Debono describes the murder of Raymond Caruana as an “act of bravado”.  

But in the case of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the president notes that the protection of the media came into question. She insists journalists must feel protected by Malta’s “democratic set-up”. 

On constitutional reform, Spiteri Debono acknowledges her predecessor’s work to set up a constitutional convention that failed to take off because the two major parties could not agree on who should captain it. 

She tells me that she will try to bring the two parties together again. But she insists this does not depend on her will alone but on the willingness of the two parties to reach consensus. 

Briefly touching on neutrality, the President says Malta can promote peace and remain neutral despite the EU’s push for increased military spending. In this regard, she believes the country must “stick to the letter of the Constitution”. 

Having been president of Nisa Laburisti during the 1990s, Spiteri Debono says women have made significant progress in society, with the biggest step forward happening when women started to enter the workplace. 

However, there is a lot more to be done, particularly for women in public life, she tells me. She notes the work-life balance challenges among working women, which are amplified when those women also contribute to political life. 

When asked about potential changes to the functioning of L-Istrina and the Malta Community Chest Fund Foundation, Spiteri Debono answers sincerely: “I don’t know.” However, she is open to the idea of change if it is done for the better, or to achieve more efficiency.

The following is an excerpt from the interview.

The full interview can also be viewed on Facebook and Spotify.

In your 2021 speech, and in your inaugural speech as President, you mentioned Daphne Caruana Galizia. Do you think we are working towards justice for her? 

Something good must come out of her death. And I believe strongly that the media, when it does its job well, when it scrutinises and serves as the voice of minorities, needs to be recognised as the fourth pillar of democracy. We need formal recognition. 

In the Constitution? 

Exactly, exactly. 

But do you think we are moving towards justice for Daphne? 

More needs to be done. The best tribute that we can pay for Daphne’s life is to build the foundations so that whoever has the same profession she had can feel protected by the democratic set-up of our country. 

You predecessor insisted heavily on constitutional reform. Firstly, do you feel that the Constitution needs reforming? 

Our Constitution has served us well. When we had to arrange it, we did so. We fixed the issue of parliamentary representation when there are more votes and fewer seats; recently after the Venice Commission we revised how the president is elected and how the chief justice is appointed. A lot of things have been amended. But you need to make sure that, when you do change the Constitution, you change it for the better, not just for the sake of changing it. His excellency George Vella did a lot of work... but the issue he found was that there wasn’t agreement on who should lead the convention. I need to see exactly... 

Do you think you’ll manage to bring the two main parties together to agree on constitutional reform? 

I will try, obviously I will try. Because there are some, even among the public, who want to see certain changes. However, it’s important to have agreement on the person, or persons, who will lead the convention. If we can’t even agree on a person to lead, what does it augur for the agreement needed to reach consensus on certain proposed changes. That’s cardinal. On something like this, it’s not about the will of the president but the will to agree. Because eventually, for the amendments to be put into force, they need to agree.  

In your inaugural speech you mentioned neutrality. Malta is a neutral state, but in the framework of the EU, and within the context of increased emphasis on defence and military spending, do you think that Malta could face a problem? 

The problem is that when you have an arsenal of armaments, instead of serving as a deterrent to those threatening your sovereignty, it becomes almost an invitation, especially if your arsenal is not strong enough. I believe we need to stick to the letter of the Constitution, not only the spirit, and be neutral while actively being recognised as always, always, always insisting on peace. 

In the 1990s you were president of Nisa Laburisti, an organisation within the Labour Party that promotes the interests of women. Since your time there, and also as a Labour Party candidate, do you feel that the role of women in public life has progressed? 

There has been a lot of progress. The best step forward was when women started entering the workplace. One of the things I always believed in is that women should always look to be financially independent and capable of feeding themselves and their children, without needing to depend on a man. [...] But I’d say one of the best amendments was carried out in 1993, that the man is not automatically considered the head of the family. At the time, most women didn’t even know what it meant to hold a bank account in their name. That was one of the best things. For there to be true equity, we need to train even men, and our young boys, to shoulder responsibility in the family, even as fathers. 

In the last election we used a new mechanism to elect more women in parliament. Do you think this measure is enough? 

It’s never enough. [...] The hope is always that people get used to the fact that women... can be trusted because they are capable of leading as much as men. This has improved, because even in professional services, people go to women professionals – doctors, lawyers, notaries, architects. This has gotten better over time. But I believe that apart from this, the issue is the balance between work and family, and more so if along with the responsibilities of work and family you have the added weight of contributing to public life. You need support in the family, and not everyone has an extended family to provide that support.  

Among the president’s functions is the leadership of the Malta Community Chest Fund Foundation and l-Istrina. Do you intend changing anything in L-Istrina or the work of the Community Chest Fund? 

I’m not in a position to respond, as I don’t know its set-up, and I don’t know what I’m going to find. If there’s room to change for the better, or for more efficiency, with the primary aim of helping more, I would try to do so with everyone’s help. But the sincere response is that I don’t know.