At the time of her assassination, Daphne Caruana Galizia had 48 libel suits mounted against her. 43 of these were civil, 5 criminal, and almost all were instigated by politicians or businessmen connected to the government. 19 alone were filed by the wealthy owner of the powerful db Group, Silvio Debono. This was done in one fell swoop in the March before her murder.
Before a bomb was finally deployed, multiple attempts were made to prevent Caruana Galizia continuing with her journalistic work. The names of some who used the legal system to attack her have now become commonplace in court in connection with her assassination: Joseph Muscat, Keith Schembri, Chris Cardona. A further striking similarity is that none of these have been arrested or, in the case of Schembri and despite all the horrific evidence we keep hearing, the police still don’t see fit to place him in custody.
Two of the above – Cardona and Schembri – dropped libel suits which they’d sustained against the Caruana Galizia family after her brutal death. Neither did so out of the milk of human kindness or in repentance for the error of their ways. For Cardona, it became a cynical game in which he repeatedly failed to turn up in court, blaming ‘government work commitments’ for his absence.
The abrupt halt in judicial proceedings, originally intended to financially cripple Caruana Galizia while she was alive, released Cardona from the need to publicly display his phone records which, if he really hadn’t been in that Acapulco brothel, he’d have brandished from the start. He took things seriously enough when he imposed a rarely used garnishee order to freeze Caruana Galizia’s bank accounts only months before her killing. It was precisely because of problems this caused that she was on her way to the bank when her car was blown up minutes from her home.
Whatever the truth in Schembri’s alleged attempts to frame Cardona with a letter slipped to Yorgen Fenech by that elusive doctor, Cardona has a personal history with the Degiorgio brothers, on trial for planting and detonating the bomb.
It took Schembri more than two years to drop two libel suits he, like Cardona, had sustained against the Caruana Galizia family after the journalist’s murder. He waited until he’d resigned, and this only after spending an evening at the then Prime Minister’s personal home. He waited until he’d been arrested and swiftly released without explanation. He waited until his name was cropping up in court like a blood-stained penny for giving a phantom job to Melvin Theuma, passing information about the murder investigation to Fenech, for being a co-conspirator in the assassination.
A lot of things happened before Schembri dropped these libel suits on the 9th December last year. Not only did he lose his phone – with his WhatsApp hotline to Yorgen and Ġowsef – but il-kink himself ‘resigned’, albeit giving himself a 6 week cooling off period in which he sweated it out for 3 days in Dubai.
Theuma had been arrested and pardoned by Muscat. Fenech had been arrested and refused a pardon, again by Muscat. Journalists had been locked in Castille by a bunch of government thugs who pretended that journalists hadn’t been locked in despite incontrovertible video evidence to the contrary. Protests were taking place on a daily basis outside Parliament leading to that last-stand act of absurdity – the royal suspension of Parliament for an unprecedented 7 week vacation. I mean, just because you’ve been violating human rights all this time doesn’t mean you deserve egg on your face.
And just because a journalist is assassinated under your watch which hurt you but not, as Muscat sneered during his farewell speech, as much as it hurt her family, doesn’t mean you have to drop the libel suits you’ve maliciously sustained against this family despite her callous murder. And just because your name and details of your intimate friendships with those implicated in the assassination keep coming up on recordings and statements made under oath doesn’t mean you have to take back the offer you generously made that if the Caruana Galizia family agree to accept the findings of the highly dubious Egrant inquiry then, magnanimously, the whole thing would be forgotten.
At a conference organised by Greenpeace in Amsterdam this week, Matthew Caruana Galizia said sustaining the lawsuits against his mother was a way to keep the pressure on his family: “The libel cases are seen as a sort of sword held against us and stopping us from campaigning more fully than we are for justice – the people who file these cases see it as a way of keeping us in check.”
What’s even more disturbing is that some of these people are now incriminated in his mother’s assassination.
Frivolous lawsuits are commonplace in Malta because it’s cheap to file them and you don’t have to provide proof of your complaint so you can chuck them at people on a whim. For the recipient, however, it’s another story, and this is grotesquely magnified in the case of Daphne Caruana Galizia. As she herself observed: “Malta must be the only country in the civilised democratic world where politicians do not only think it is normal and acceptable to sue journalists, but they actually think it is a good PR response which improves their image.”
For Caruana Galizia, it wasn’t enough for Maltese politicians and PEPs to launch an attack. Their friends, such as Henley and Partners and Pilatus Bank, gleefully joined in the fray.
Daphne’s father, Michael Vella, wrote a chilling account of the SLAPP action instituted by the owner of Pilatus Bank, Ali Sadr, who now faces up to 125 years in a US jail. The lawsuit was filed on the 8th May 2017, a week after campaigning for the snap election had got underway. Daphne was unaware of this and only hours after she was murdered, the lawsuit was quietly removed.
Given what we now know from Melvin Theuma’s testimony, the plot to assassinate Daphne was put on hold when the election was announced and put back into motion following the Labour Party’s win. Her father’s words, written only months after his daughter’s murder, had a prescient weight then. Even more so now: “The urgent need to silence Daphne was the real reason why the election date was brought forward, and not, as sometimes and incorrectly stated, the report weeks later, in April, that Egrant is owned by Michelle Muscat.”
Lawsuits and decades’ worth of hate campaigns didn’t work and so, while she was making sense of thousands of leaked Electrogas documents, they killed her.
Ali Sadr’s threat of SLAPP, however, with its potentially disastrous financial consequences, was effective in silencing criticism of Pilatus Bank by the main newspapers in Malta: the Times of Malta, the Malta Independent and Malta Today. The Shift News has defiantly stood up to similar forms of intimidation and this week, it’s Manuel Delia’s turn to be bullied into acquiescence. The circumstances of this are almost laughable given that the person doing the suing is co-owner of Satabank, already closed down and fined €3m for anti-money laundering breaches. Today, it transpires that Christo Georgiev has decided to go for a double whammy by suing the Times of Malta as well.
We may see the joke in Georgiev’s claims of ‘psychological and physical discomfort’, but the actuality is far from amusing, exemplifying yet further attempts by big money players to shut down those who expose their dirty ways. Carole Cadwalladr is confronting Arron Banks. Jan Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova, were gunned down in their home 2 years ago. Daphne Caruana Galizia was blown up in a car bomb.
The proliferation of threats against media freedom means there’s no irony in the fact that the latest attack on Manuel Delia comes at the same time as the conference in Amsterdam or when the Nationalist Party, still limping its way through Malta, is tabling a bill to protect journalists from expensive overseas legal battles. It’s 2 years since PN MP Jason Azzopardi tabled an amendment to the Media and Defamation Bill as an anti-SLAPP measure, an amendment slapped down by that violator of human rights, Owen Bonnici.
I stood outside Parliament that day as part of a tiny protest, holding cards with details of every libel case mounted against Daphne Caruana Galizia. Daphne’s youngest sister joined us. In broad daylight, in the middle of a public square, a middle-aged couple made their feelings loudly known.
“Why don’t you let her rest in peace?” they shouted, “If she can rest in peace. We’re ok! We’ve got money! Our children have got shops!”
What’s freedom of information and bumping off a few journalists in comparison?