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Reclaiming democracy - Francis Zammit Dimech

It’s been a year and we are none the wiser to know who ordered her assassination. The day Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed the greatest loss was hers, denied the right to live out her years. Next, come her husband, children, parents, family, all denied the ability to enjoy her love, her presence, her wit, her affection, her support and her example.

Above any and all considerations, their pain and loss come first and a year since her taking away, like every day during it, I think of them and pray for them.

But all of us lost something that day, even those who do not realise it or refuse to do so.

We cannot have a democracy if we do not have free speech. Democracy is not only made of elections: dictatorships have those too. Democracy needs journalists to work freely and securely. Like judges, civil servants, police officers and teachers, journalists are public servants with a crucial function in our society that when hindered, an insidious reality develops: one which looks deceptively like a democracy but really is not.

Citizens cannot be said to have the right to vote freely if they are not properly informed. It is not a bad reflection on ill-informed citizens when they make the wrong electoral choices. Politicians with malign intents can deceive voters out of their will by covering up facts or by eliminating their free exchange.

This did not start with the killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia. 

The press in Malta works under enormous pressures we cannot underestimate. There are huge skills gaps particularly in specialised reporting in sensitive areas such as organised crime and financial wrong-doing. The profession is notoriously low paying giving way to people for whom journalism cannot be exercised professionally.

Readership of the print media is in dramatic decline. Advertising is shifting away from conventional to social media where information is far less bound by rules of decency and professionalism. 

When they used to say Daphne Caruana Galizia was divisive, they unwittingly acknowledged just how brilliant she was at her job

Not all the pressures on journalists are as inevitable as they sound. Partisan trolling organised by the Labour Party to suffocate arguments of critics poisons the air preventing any meaningful exchange of ideas or imparting of facts. It is also intimidation and has the chilling effect of forcing journalists to censor themselves, consciously or not, to avoid the exhausting attrition war of heckles, taunts and threats.

Heckling on social media makes a very short leap to heckling in the street. Fear becomes real as the danger becomes physical. The dehumanisation of journalists – labelled traitors, witches, hate-mongers and liars – pushes people away from even an attempt at fulfilling their mission.

The general misunderstanding is that it is their right that is prejudiced or even crushed. It is that, but the biggest losers are the rest of us. The right to freedom of expression is not limited to the people imparting information. It is there to protect the right of those receiving it.  We have a right to know when crime gets close to politics, when governance is inefficient or corrupt, when institutions fail in their duties, not merely to satisfy our curiosity or to entertain us as a spectator sport or fictional drama would. We have a right to know when things go wrong because we need to know if we are to start putting them right.

Journalists have the sacred duty to deliver bad news. The proper reaction to news of corruption in politics is disappointment and anger. Directing it at the carriers of the news rather than at the subjects who caused it may make us feel better about ourselves extending the pretence we did not make the wrong electoral choice, but it changes nothing to the reality revealed by the journalist.

When they used to say Daphne Caruana Galizia was divisive, they unwittingly acknowledged just how brilliant she was at her job. She made it very hard for supporters of the corrupt people she exposed to ignore the massive failings of their heroes and by extension of themselves for choosing them. Such persons choose to hate her, alive or dead, for letting them know what they would have rather never found out.

The killing of journalists is the suffocation of truth and by extension the death of justice and democracy. The killers of Caruana Galizia killed the woman to mortally wound our own freedom.

The unequivocal call by the Nationalist Party for the setting up of an independent inquiry that will look into why Daphne was not given the due protection that would have prevented her assassination in the first place, and into why subsequent investigations have not been conducted as one would expect in a democratic society, not least in the light of the decision that has just been given by our country’s highest court, by our Constitutional Court, needs to be heeded to. Without further delay or excuses.

Our democracy needs us to defend it.  Same for freedom of expression. Join me in Valletta this coming Sunday at 4pm at the civil society’s march reclaiming the truth and justice we lost a year ago when Caruana Galizia lost her life.

Francis Zammit Dimech is a Nationalist MEP.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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