[ANALYSIS] Daphne Caruana Galizia: Hero abroad, an enemy at home

The real, complex, and polarised legacy of Daphne Caruana Galizia: to grasp the immense disparity between the slain journalist’s international fame and her ostracised status in Malta, we should begin by understanding how her legacy is perceived

The sanitised, sanctified image of Caruana Galizia channelled by the international media meets polarised reaction among Maltese... “tell me what you think of Daphne and I will tell you about your social background and political views”
The sanitised, sanctified image of Caruana Galizia channelled by the international media meets polarised reaction among Maltese... “tell me what you think of Daphne and I will tell you about your social background and political views”

Twenty-four months after a car bomb explosion claimed Daphne Caruana Galizia’s life, the investigation has not moved beyond arresting three hit men, and establishing three key suspects who might have ordered the assassination, among whom are a “major businessman,” a man “connected with the gambling scene” and another “suspected to be linked to the smuggling underworld”. In other words, the mastermind behind the murder has not been named. In comparison, it took less than eight months of investigations to name Marián Kočner as the individual commissioning the killing of Slovak journalist Ján Kuciak.

Despite the seemingly slow progress of the investigation, the murder is no longer a topic on everyone’s lips in Malta. Monthly vigils and commemorative events organised by civil society organisations Repubblika and Occupy Justice attract a modestly sized crowd, while the makeshift memorial on Great Siege Square is a site of ongoing contestation, albeit with little public awareness of it. Almost daily, the memorial is cleared up by the authorities and restored by volunteers. A taboo outside a carefully curated club of her devotees, Daphne and pending justice are thus sliding into oblivion in her home country – a stark contrast with her fame abroad.

Why didn’t this heinous murder catalyse a mass movement against corruption? Why does the internationally celebrated journalist remain so unpopular in Malta outside the narrow circle of predominantly upper middle-class admirers? 

It could be tempting to answer these questions in a superficial, yet convenient ‘good guys vs bad guys’ manner, sorting admirers and detractors into two neat categories – a mob, complacent with corruption and dumbfounded by state propaganda versus principled defenders of democratic values. Yet, this perspective sheds no light on the causes for polarisation, neither would it draw a much-needed public support to demand justice. 

To grasp the reasons for the immense disparity between Caruana Galizia’s international fame and her formally ostracised status in Malta, we should begin by understanding how her legacy is perceived outside Malta and nationally.

Victims of Malta’s partisanship: the photo of Karen Grech, killed by a letter-bomb addressed to her father, and of Raymond Caruana (right), shot in an assault on a PN club, by the photo of Caruana Galizia
Victims of Malta’s partisanship: the photo of Karen Grech, killed by a letter-bomb addressed to her father, and of Raymond Caruana (right), shot in an assault on a PN club, by the photo of Caruana Galizia

A polarised, simplified, perverted legacy

Two years since the murder, the legacy of Daphne Caruana Galizia could not have been more polarised and streamlined at the same time. Outside Malta, the journalist is celebrated as ‘conscience in media‘, a hero of unquestionable professionalism and ethics, whose devotion to battling corruption cost her her life. Since October 16, 2017, she posthumously received numerous media awards, a BBC docudrama and books paid her tribute, and eminent international celebrities such as Meryl Streep and Naomi Klein praised her work.

In 2018, the journalist even received recognition from GUE/NGL, the left-wing block in the European parliament, which established an award in her honour: a rather unexpected turn, considering Caruana Galizia’s loyalty to free market ideals and her disdain of left-wing politics in general. 

In the eyes of international liberal circles, Daphne’s legacy verges on the epic. In addition to justified recognition for exposing the Panama companies owned by Malta’s two high-profile officials and her inquiry into the Egrant scandal, she has been attributed initiatives and views she did not espouse. One specific example worth mentioning is a wide-spread misconception holding her as a critic of Malta’s tax regime and its online gambling sector. Tax Justice Network implied that Caruana Galizia’s journalism sought to uncover Malta as “EU’s rogue or pirate state, offering extreme levels of secrecy for certain services”, whereas one of the Daphne Project investigations alleged her “interest in online gambling”.

Daphne Caruana Galizia leaving the law courts with lawyer Edward Zammit Maempel
Daphne Caruana Galizia leaving the law courts with lawyer Edward Zammit Maempel

Both claims ignore the full intricacy of the journalist’s work and the context it drew upon. 

Despite gaining international esteem after disclosing offshore companies of Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, she was not generally opposed to tax havens. On the contrary, her criticism of Mizzi’s and Schembri’s companies had much to do with the defence of Malta’s tax regime, since the scandal had harmed the reputation of Malta’s financial sector, hence making it difficult for tax-planning and wealth-managing law firms to operate with ease. A testimony to that is a remark she left in the comment section of her post on MaltaFiles, arguing that “Malta was getting along swimmingly before the Prime Minister and his two henchmen decided to set up companies in Panama”. Challenging Malta’s tax regime was certainly not among her objectives.

Neither did she seem particularly critical of the online gambling sector at large. For instance, when rumours spread that Betsson Group might leave Malta, she lamented that Labour’s incompetence caused “reputational damage” and created an unfavourable climate for the company’s operations. She expressed her relief when the gambling giant refuted the rumours. 

However, it is unsurprising that these significant details which complicate her mythologised image are continuously overlooked by the international community. After all, a country depicted in Running Commentary – where “cronyism is accepted as something normal” - matches a clichéd perception of Malta abroad (in Politico’s words, “an island nation famous for [...] untransparency and corruption”). Why muddle an otherwise neat story with inconvenient nuance, if the stereotype sells so well? 

Although there are objective reasons for flagging up corruption among Malta’s top officials and denouncing its tax regime which drains revenue from other countries, foreign reporters fail to see beyond the purported Maltese cultural inferiority. Disguised as a seemingly national trait, the material conditions are rarely taken into account: a small peripheral member state has to compete with established ones by underbidding on tax rates. It has to sell as many assets as possible in order to stay afloat in the global economy and the single market.

The sanitised, sanctified image of Daphne Caruana Galizia channeled by the international media meets polarised reaction among Maltese locals. One’s perception of her journalism reveals much more than partisan allegiance and tolerance of corruption - it could be used as an integral social indicator in its own right. To paraphrase a popular saying: tell me what you think of Daphne and I will tell you about your social background and political views. One’s opinion about Running Commentary would speak volumes about the reader’s ideas on Malta’s national identity, the country’s role globally as well as their thoughts on the interplay between social class and power.

While admirers of the slain journalist avidly stand by the heroic narrative, others’ receptions vary from scepticism to outright backlash – feedback which does not necessarily imply coziness with corruption. Familiar with her staunch elitism, personal attacks and disparaging commentary on targets whose only wrongdoing was being “ill-bred“, or – by the journalist’s standard – not tasteful enough, sceptics have reservations about the narrative. Others – especially diehard supporters of the Labour Party – see the media focus on Malta as an attempt to meddle with the country’s internal affairs and consequently regard Caruana Galizia and her supporters as a cause of trouble.

As the journalist’s name is invoked abroad to refer to corruption in Malta, the passport trade and – mistakenly – the economic model itself, a defensive nationalistic sentiment is brewing in the post-colonial island state in response. To those in power, a wave of patriotic outcry and traitor conspiracies come in handy: blaming international scrutiny on scheming by ‘tradituri’ shields the authorities from protests on the ground. Thus, cultivating a perverted public perception of Caruana Galizia and her followers as national enemies works wonders to uphold the status quo: it undermines a possibility for popular uprising against corruption and keeps abuses of power unchallenged, especially within a bi-partisan political system.

Be it in Malta or abroad, the slain journalist’s legacy has been grossly simplified, perverted and utilised as a tool in a geopolitical duel for gaining – or safeguarding – control over the flow of wealth siphoned through Malta’s financial services sector. 

On the other hand, polarised perceptions of Caruana Galizia’s legacy that label everyone as either a ‘Labour lackey’ or a ‘traitor’ leave little space for a broader public engagement. Hardly would ‘Labour lackeys’ demand justice for a ‘national enemy’ celebrated by ‘traitors’. And without a wide support of the cause, mass indifference is inevitable.

Love her or hate her, but do remember her

The murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia left a void in the Maltese mediascape. The degree of influence her blog exerted on national politics still remains unsurpassed. 

Although Manuel Delia’s blog and The Shift News build upon the journalist’s legacy, neither of them matches the stature of Running Commentary, not least due to lacking its key ingredient – bogan bashing. Daphne Caruana Galizia’s acerbic mocking of commoners with high ambitions, their lack of sophistication and bad grammar stirred intense sentiments. She dared to spell out prejudices of her social circle black on white, giving an immense sadistic pleasure to her followers and setting her detractors ablaze with indignation. Reading her was addictive; the undiluted vitriol of her writing was a drug that thrilled and enraged.

Her anti-corruption reporting, too, had a gloating tone to it. Between the lines, it exclaimed: this is what happens to the country when peasants ascend to positions of power! Unfortunately, her zeal to expose financial mismanagement, bribes and abuse of power had little to do with serving the common good. She was a gatekeeper. Her journalism aimed to oust political newcomers and restore the rule of the old elite, better equipped to guard the reputation of Malta’s offshore economy. Most important, however, is that her outspoken expositions of shady dealings interfered with activities of powerful criminal interests whose brutal representatives haven’t yet been brought to justice.

No, an appraisal of Daphne Caruana Galizia as “a hero of our times“ need not be mandatory, but demanding justice for her ought to be. An antipathy to a person so averse to lower classes representation in politics could be justified, as long as it does not equate to seeing her legacy as a malicious scheming of a traitor. Regarding the slain journalist as a national enemy further disempowers ordinary citizens. It does a disservice to democratic interests as it plays in the hands of perpetrators, essentially curbing sprouts of non-partisan mobilisation against abuses of power. Indifference to the cause chips away at citizens’ power and empowers obscure business interests instead.

Since the alarmingly slow progress of the investigations into the assassination is beneficial to criminals and their accomplices, there is a dire need for a grassroots movement to confront the state of affairs. A popular non-partisan mobilisation should go beyond superficial criticism of corruption as Malta’s cultural malaise. We must understand that money laundering and high-profile corruption, as well as the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, have not been committed in a vacuum and are inseparable from the fabric of the country’s tax regime which has facilitated the islands’ transformation into a playground of the global rich and organised crime. 

Such a movement must uphold the interests of common folk left behind by this booming economy. It must be a movement that would challenge abuses of power perpetuated by the elite, regardless of their status and partisan affiliation – be they of the pedigreed kind, so revered by the late journalist, or nouveau riche she despised. In other words, a mobilisation against high-profile corruption must have social justice at its heart: only an overall decent quality of life can emancipate ordinary people from having to condone crooks in power in order to make ends meet.

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