After her bombshell exposé enlightened us to the scale and propensity of elite financial fraud in the Panama Papers leak, Daphne Caruana Galizia was viciously killed by a car bomb in Bidnija, Malta on October 17, 2017. Michelle Muscat — wife of Joseph Muscat, the Maltese Prime Minister — was among those identified by Galizia as benefiting from tax evasion through suspicious offshore companies located on the Central American island.
A year has passed since Galizia’s brutal assassination, and it seems little has changed. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is still beseeching European nations to protect free speech and the independent operations of investigative journalists. The OSCE’s media freedom representative, Harlem Désir, has reiterated his year-old plea that the murder of the journalist is thoroughly investigated and that those responsible be held to account. Quite frankly, he wants an answer: Who ordered the murder?
Désir’s express despair at the killing of Galizia in October 2017 now carries even more urgency, with news that Jamal Khashoggi has suffered a similar fate. Gazilia has become a potent cultural symbol for the resilience of anti-corruption activists and journalists, with Désir surmising the ordeal under the tagline that ‘each time a journalist is killed, a pillar of democracy crumbles’. His words have not yet expired; in fact, they ring truer than ever.
A vocal critique of Prince Mohammed Bin Salam of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi joins Galizia as one of many gutsy journalists targeted by rogue political notables keen to quash criticism of any kind. They rely on cultures of fear and censorship to ensure political stability, and Désir argues that only a ‘powerful pledge’ and commitment to tackling impunity by all 57 OSCE participating states will affect a change in this continued trend of human rights abuse against those who speak out.
Both individuals dared to challenge those in power, and the necessity of ensuring justice for Khashoggi and Galizia are, in Désir’s words, ‘paramount to defeat intimidation and corruption and to preserve a free and open society.’ Important in both cases is the need to acknowledge the highest level of culpability in attempted (or successful) assassinations of free-speech proponents. Joseph Muscat denied, and continues to deny, any involvement in Galizia’s murder, while Prince bin Salman has likewise refuted accusations that he was personally involved in Khashoggi’s demise. This is despite all the evidence pointing to his official sanction of the suspected murder.
Back in February 2017, Dunja Mijatović, then OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, lamented the media abuse against Galizia. She said:
‘it is the job of journalists to report on issues of public importance and it is the job of the authorities to ensure that journalists can do so without intimidation or threat’.
The lawsuit filed against Galizia for libel by the Economy Minister, Chris Cardona, was deeply concerning to Mijatović: she specified anxieties that subsequent freezing of Galizia’s bank account and accusations of anti-patriotism stunted the growth of free society in Malta and put Galizia’s life at risk.
Explicit in Désir’s call for the protection of critical and investigative journalists this time round is the need for members of the OSCE to hold governments directly responsible — rather than those who merely orchestrate the killing. He encourages ‘authorities’ to investigate each threat and combat the silencing of free speech, leaving the subject of the statement deliberately vague, but equally expansive.
Only three individuals were convicted for Galizia’s murder, while seven others implicated were released on bail. Malta avoided sanctions, although the European Parliament questioned the government’s independent ability to investigate powerful individuals on the island due to the country’s corrupt legal and justice system. PM Joseph Muscat called a snap election following the report about his wife, promising to resign if the allegations were true; however, he returned unopposed and the issue was swept under the carpet. Now, Désir’s assertion that authorities must act shoots even higher than the national level — he is asking for international consensus on which political atrocities invalidate current trading relationships or political alliances. Clearly, he has no limiting threshold in mind as he puts forward his vision for European co-operation on this sensitive issue.
The question is a potent one, especially in recent circumstances involving Khasoggi’s death. The UK and USA’s close interconnection with Saudi Arabia, even more intimate than that between Malta and the UK, has broadened out to an almost personal relationship between Trump, Bin Salman and Theresa May. This raises issues about the non-biased ability of Western nations to separate economic needs from the protection of basic human rights and democratic freedoms. It marks an eventful, though tragic, commemoration to the one-year anniversary of exceptional journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, and reminds us where we need to go from here.