If you’ve been following, you know all this. If you haven’t been following, you wouldn’t care. And yet, if you’re still here and I’m still here, then it must be because we both think this is worth remembering.
Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in 16 October 2017 by car bomb outside her home. She was the best-known journalist in the country and with good reason. During the last years of her life, she investigated and exposed systemic corruption in the government of the country.
She had established that a company in the UAE was a vehicle set up to funnel bribes to government ministers. The owner of that UAE company commissioned Daphne’s murder before she could publish and expose his scheme. He was convinced he would get away with it because of his close associations to the prime minister and other senior government ministers and to organised crime. (The man concerned, Yorgen Fenech, is awaiting trial and denies any wrongdoing).
That illicit relationship hidden behind the fog of disinformation and hatred which Daphne was subjected to, gave Daphne’s killers the sense of impunity they needed to feel comfortable taking her out.
That ‘incident’ for want of a better word, is the strongest case, in a severely summarised form, that media freedom and, by extension of that, democracy in Malta are subjected to the constant threat of subversion by criminal-and-political interests.
From October 2017 onwards, Daphne Caruana Galizia’s family, and like-minded people from the international free speech community, international and inter-parliamentary organisations, journalists in Malta and abroad, as well as activists here in Malta, campaigned for justice, which was never understood to be limited to the imprisonment of her killers.
One important aspect of that demand for justice was the appointment of a public inquiry that would, in public, hear and document the evidence surrounding the circumstances of Daphne’s killing. The government rejected this notion until the political crisis of November 2019 forced Joseph Muscat – still at the time desperately seeking to survive politically – to establish the inquiry.
It met for about 18 months hearing dozens of witnesses in open chamber. And it finally reached the conclusion I summarised above, attributing responsibility for the impunity that caused Daphne’s death to the government and the state that allowed it to happen. This made it incumbent on the government and the state to make changes to prevent the repetition of the circumstances that had dragged Malta to such a low and cost a journalist her life.
The inquiry made a list of recommendations which have been public since July 2021. Not one of those recommendations has been taken up by the authorities and not one was implemented.
A small subset of the recommendations address specifically concerns about the ability of journalists to do their work. These call on the government to adopt rules to prevent libel tourism and vexatious lawsuits, rules recognising the importance of journalism to democracy, and procedures to improve the safety and security of journalists. The inquiry recommended that a “committee of experts” be hired to go into details of what these new rules might look like.
The government did set up a committee of experts in January 2022 but Robert Abela immediately clipped their wings by giving them his own draft laws and directing the committee to limit their work to making an appraisal of his drafts. Their reactions was “yeah, ok, but …” which the prime minister interpreted as approval. They were being polite. The drafts are an amateurish hotch-potch quite clearly designed to be both highfalutin and ineffective.
In September 2022, before anyone outside the committee had seen the draft laws, the government took them to Parliament. There was uproar. Journalists wondered why they’d never been asked what they thought about the laws that were supposed to regulate their professions. A close look at the drafts showed that there were many ways that the changed laws would make life for journalists less safe and their work less independent from government interference rather than the status quo that allowed Daphne to be killed.
The government, not in a hurry to implement any changes to begin with, froze the Parliamentary bills and directed the committee of experts to conduct consultation.
A public hearing was called in February 2023. No government minister or even a lowly official taken notes attended the meeting. There was no draft report to discuss so the people present, me included, basically ranted randomly about their grievances. There was no coherent outcome of the proceedings. That was for the committee to make sense of. They may or may not have done so. Only they can know the answer to that.
In June 2023 they informed the prime minister their new report was ready. They waited 24 days to be given an appointment to physically hand over the report to the prime minister. Apparently, email was not an option. Smoke signals neither. The committee waited and they were allowed to hand over the report to Robert Abela in July.
Here we are in September and the report remains a secret. The committee of experts sees itself as hired by the government. Indeed, they were paid to do their work. It would seem they would not dream to publish their work themselves, because this has been work for hire.
Journalists, academics, artists, and activists wrote to the prime minister yesterday to urge him to cut the crap, publish the report, and conduct direct consultations with the public and with the profession before going to Parliament with any new drafts. This is their letter: Petition to PM on Media Reform
Robert Abela replied yesterday in a statement. He said the report is not public yet because he’s waiting for Parliament to come back from recess. This is the prime minister who ignored a parliamentary resolution about an inquiry into the Jean Paul Sofia death adopted on Thursday with an executive decision over-ruling it all on Monday. His contempt for Parliament is legendary. And yet, on this occasion, he has found resources for inordinate zeal of making sure no one finds out what the experts he hired have said before Parliament does.
His cynicism is truly despicable. Consider that the committee was made to wait 24 days with its completed report before it could hand it over to the prime minister, while the prime minister waited for Parliament to go on its recess.
The rest of the prime minister’s statement from yesterday is what gives the game away. He says that now that the committee of experts have conducted their consultation, he won’t need to conduct any consultations himself. He’ll be going straight to Parliament though no one can yet guess with what.
For all we know, the committee of experts have recommended changes that would revolutionise free press in Malta and make it the safest place on earth for journalists to do their work. For all we know, Robert Abela will adopt their recommendations wholesale. But allowing for that possibility would require you to ignore what happened every day since that fateful hot Monday in October of 2017.
If Robert Abela expects people who actually care about free expression and the functioning of democracy to approve of his legislative changes he wouldn’t be publishing statements justifying his decision to keep them hidden until moments before they are made into irrevocable law. He wouldn’t be waiting for Parliament to come back from recess, the last possible moment he could publish the recommendations before rushing bills through Parliament, buried under the Parliamentary budget agenda, before anyone’s even read what they wrote.
No good laws about free expression are made in secret. No laws that are meant to protect someone’s ability to do their job are written without ever speaking to them. And this government will write no laws that will enable their critics to be safer and therefore more effective.
If you’re still reading this, you likely agree with me already. But it bears repeating that Robert Abela’s conduct in the process of making these reforms on media freedom cannot be separated from the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. We are having this conversation about reforms because we are meant to put right all the wrong that killed her. These changes are supposed to be an act of mortification and reparation by a government and a state found responsible for the killing of a journalist.
Instead of righting all that wrong, Robert Abela is making his own the responsibilities of the government that preceded his. Joseph Muscat suffocated free speech. Robert Abela is burying it.