Two years ago, I wrote an article prompted by the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, a journalist from my homeland, the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta. The contract killing of a journalist who was working to expose corruption in the island, sent shock waves across the country and across Europe. For those of us who fled Malta, during the dark days of the 70s and 80s, it was a harrowing reminder of just how easily a democratic country can descend into lawlessness and corruption.
But Daphne’s murder was much worse than a throwback to Malta’s dark political past: for many of us, there was a sense of palpable despair that this act of war (as Daphne’s son rightly called her assassination), was the beginning of a period of terrible trial for the nation, with no hope of change in sight.
At the time of her murder, Daphne Caruana Galizia was one of Malta’s most influential journalists, her blog Running Commentary was more widely read than all the major Maltese newspapers combined. It was her work uncovering corruption within government, involving secret offshore companies owned by Labour Government ministers, that attracted the most attention and – in an island increasingly rife with corruption – that put her life in danger. Two long years later, there are signs that Daphne’s family may see the justice they have fought for so hard, with a series of arrests and revelations coming to the surface – most notably the arrest of prominent businessman Yorgen Fenech and several government ministers close to Joseph Muscat (including his chief of staff), who have been implicated in the plot to kill a woman who was proving a little too adept at sniffing out corruption within government and who refused repeatedly to give way to intimidation. Long before Daphne was killed, she was subjected to harassment and threats that would be regarded as unacceptable in any democratic country. Her pet dogs were killed, their bloodied bodies dumped on her doorstep. Her assets were frozen, she was arrested and her life was repeatedly threatened. The last words she wrote before she got into her car and was blown to pieces were: “There are crooks everywhere now. The situation is desperate.”
The murder of an innocent person is always shocking and Daphne’s brutal murder was particularly horrible. Her son, Matthew, described hearing the explosion and running barefoot to the scene, desperately trying to open the door of the burning car before realizing that he was surrounded by his mother’s body parts. The emergency services responded by sending a couple of policemen with a fire extinguisher. Almost more shocking, though, was the cold, mercenary account of Daphne’s death given by the hitmen who have been charged with her murder: the contract made in a café involving a fee of 50,000 Euros each, the careful laying of plans, the purchasing of explosives via Malta’s criminal underworld, the setting of the trap. The reminder that, beneath the genial surface of daily life in Malta (and many other countries), there lies a criminal network capable of coldly and methodically dispatching a human life for the princely sum of 150,000 Euros.
Muscat and the cult of the modern visionary
Joseph Muscat, Malta’s now-embattled leader, was – outwardly – the model of a modern, progressive politician. The economy boomed and Muscat has pushed through social changes such as the introduction of same-sex marriage and the aggressive promotion of LGBT policies in the name of turning the island into a ‘modern’ state. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair lent his support to Muscat’s re-election campaign (a snap election called when Daphne had already published serious allegations of government corruption) and only five months ago, outgoing EU President Juncker, praised Malta for ‘defending European values’ and for fighting corruption. Yes, the President of the EU did say that. He also singled out Joseph Muscat for praise following Malta’s EU presidency, citing his ‘excellent work.’
The EU is now, quite rightly, condemning Maltese corruption – better late than never. The fact is, however, that Muscat has enjoyed a cult-like following as a charismatic modern, liberal leader and this personality cult may have given him an undeserved level of protection from scrutiny. Many of the worst tyrants of modern history were clever, charismatic and popular – I hardly need to name the obvious – but beneath the smokescreen of rainbow flags and modernist rhetoric, Malta has become a mafia state and a sanctuary for criminals, for which Joseph Muscat must now shoulder responsibility. Any nation which murders its own citizens for speaking out is – by definition – no longer a democracy. Freedom of the press is a benchmark of just how free and liberal a country really is and Malta has lost the right under the current administration to call itself free.
The people are angry
It was British writer George Orwell who said: ‘A people that elect corrupt politicians, imposters, thieves and traitors are not victims… but accomplices’. It is a bitter truth to swallow, but a truth nonetheless. It may have taken six years for the population to accept the hideous reality of the monster they have elected not once but twice, but thousands of angry men and women are now on the move. The nightly protests outside the Prime Minister’s Offices at the Auberge de Castille have grown with every passing night, the entire city of Valletta brought to a standstill by a crowd numbering thousands, and the protests are now spilling out into neighboring towns with students blocking the roads, demanding Muscat’s immediate resignation.
In spite of considerable provocation and the ominous deployment of soldiers to protect the protestors from possible counterattack, the protests have remained largely peaceful, a virtually miraculous feat given the intense and growing anger of the people. Waving banners and holding up pictures of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the crowds can be heard shouting ‘Murderers!’ ‘Justice!’ ‘Daphne was Right!’ ‘Mafia State’ ‘Shame on You!’ ‘Out! Out! Out!’ with Muscat ridiculed as ‘Puppet Prime Minister’ (there is no English word I can think of that translates Pulcinell strongly enough). Other chants have been less polite (you may use your imagination here) and the Prime Minister’s car has been pelted with eggs and coins, but when I first saw the crowds gathering and witnessed the Government’s appalling response to the protests, I was not alone in fearing that there would be bloodshed.
The Government’s Cold War era response
The Government’s response to the protests that are engulfing the island, has been insulting, incompetent and almost comically archaic. It really is like watching a Cold War-era regime trying to deal with an uprising. Journalists entering the Castille have been locked up by thuggish security officers, the government apparently unaware that it is a serious crime to hold people against their will. In the past, this may have been an effective way to stop journalists from working, but it is as though the government failed to grasp that journalists these days carry smartphones and the disgraceful scenes of journalists trapped behind locked doors were filmed and live-streamed around the world. During Labour Party counter-demonstrations, journalists have been harassed and assaulted in full view of the cameras.
Like an erstwhile Gaddafi, Muscat seemed to think that giving an extremely lengthy speech about how wonderful he is as a leader, would somehow counteract the slew of rage and frustration for which he is himself to blame. Worst of all, with thousands clamoring for his immediate resignation, he refuses to resign until the New Year, claiming laughably that his leadership is necessary at this time of crisis. A pyromaniac putting his case for leading the fire service would have more credibility in the current climate. In the meantime, men have been seen walking out of the back door of the Castille carrying boxes away. A cynic might think that Muscat was hanging onto his position of power to allow time to cover his tracks, but let’s not be cynical. Look where it got poor Daphne.
During the War, the headquarters of the Times of Malta was bombed, but the formidable editor insisted that an issue of the paper should come out the very next day, albeit printed on charred paper. When a socialist mob ransacked the Times of Malta headquarters in 1979, locked the journalists in and set fire to the building, editor Mabel Strickland is alleged to have said that if the Luftwaffe had not stopped them, Mintoff certainly would not. An issue of the paper was produced – in reduced form – the very next day.
I get the sense, watching thousands of angry Maltese on the march, demanding justice and a return to democracy, that the same message is being given to the world. The Ottomans did not conquer us, the Nazis did not defeat us – we will not be beaten by a corrupt, self-serving government. This is the real Malta, the brave young people barricading the roads with cries of Justice! This is the George Cross Island of which I am justly proud.
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