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Crime against the country - Victor Paul Borg

One year after the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the event that ruptured Malta’s innocence, the convoluted aftermath has led to a dangerous state of dichotomy. It’s a dichotomy between the two Maltas – those who see everything bad, those who see nothing wrong – but more consequentially a dichotomy between Malta’s estimation of itself and the international view on Malta.

These dichotomies, which have their roots in Malta’s political parochialism and insularity, have been sharpened by the glare of international journalists and politicians. They are now in volatile combination: as Malta is being seen internationally as a rogue nation within the EU, a groundswell of resentful jingoism is rearing its head. Invective at perceived Maltese traitors on social media has become hideous and dangerous. 

But instead of being tetchy about critical depictions of Malta, and blaming it on Opposition or protest figures, it would be more constructive to understand why the international view is that the investigation into Daphne’s assassination has been fudged, and that the slaying has revealed the state of rot in Malta.

Even those of us who are not partisan-minded, those of us in the commentariat who aspire to objectivity still struggle to find much in the current state of affairs that inspires confidence.

For a start Malta’s approach appears woefully lacking. It’s hard not to feel disoriented by the dual, opaque investigations – a secretive inquiry by a magistrate, a parallel, separate and overlapping investigation by the police. And it’s hard not to feel appalled by the intransigence of the police and Attorney General who resisted the removal from the investigation of Assistant Commissioner of Police Silvio Valletta all the way to the Constitutional Court. These things and other aberrations give rise to the concern that the investigation is atrophying, perhaps conveniently so.

In this context there is little sympathy for the government’s protestation that the judiciary is independent, or that this is the biggest murder investigation in Malta’s history. The handling of the aftermath of assassination, as well as other investigations into wrongdoings that have sputtered, has brought into sharp relief the weaknesses of the institutions of law and order. The picture that’s emerged is of a police force that appears partial and unprofessional, of courts opaque and inefficient, of regulatory structures being led by people shorn of the fearlessness and institutional robustness needed to carry out their job with independent vigour.

All of this is now plainly evident to international journalists and political apparatchiks in Brussels. It doesn’t help that the government often reacts to criticism by being intransigent and defensive.  

One year on, not only has political accountability for the assassination been shirked, the government has so far failed to respond to the event in a proactive, reformist, significant manner. There has been no public inquiry of any sort. I am not talking about the current clamour for a public inquiry into the slaying and whether it could have been prevented – that wouldn’t serve reform into the wider issues. I am talking about a broader public inquiry – the economics and politics that got us into this appalling state, the failings of law enforcement and justice, the rule of law and issues of impunity.

After an event of such magnitude, a public inquiry would serve as a vehicle for catharsis, debate and reform.

For this was not just an ordinary murder. This was a spectacular assassination that has shaken the country and traumatised journalism and public life. Relegating it to a murder investigation – particularly since the two parallel investigations seem to be in stasis – has fed the suspicion that the government prefers to hush things up.  

Its recent embroilment in the fray about the organic shrine at the Great Siege Memorial is another bizarre twist. It’s hard to follow Justice Minister Owen Bonnici’s hyperbolic justification that the Daphne shrine had to be cleared of a bunch of flowers and candles because it amounts to appropriation of the Great Siege Memorial. The Daphne shrine is by nature temporary, it will eventually go away – especially if the mastermind is caught, which is where the government’s energy should be focused.

No self-respecting country can allow whoever did that to get away with it

If the government’s intention was to snuffle the dogged protests for justice it has instead transformed the struggle to save the shrine into a stand against oppression. That’s why this week’s protests transcend the assassination; the protestors are now invoking the wider malaise in governance in Malta.

Standards of governance have indeed slipped, and the slippage has exacerbated the longstanding weaknesses of institutions. The political discourse has also become more strident and expletive-laden, especially on social media – the occasional rants of a few officials close to the Prime Minister are surreal.

The culture of resignations is buried as soon as a party gains power. After all, it’s hard to think of another country in the global north where having a secret Panama account doesn’t lead to resignation. There have been other politicians whose conduct or associations, some of which have been revealed by Daphne Project, have cast a shadow that merits resignation, at least if we expect politicians to be exemplary.

Do we still aspire to political maturity and accountability? Are we still part of the political culture of Europe? These questions can also be posed to other officials, not only politicians, other key officials in the State apparatus that make blunders and misuse public funds without resigning. 

Media revelations of instances of bad governance have little impact nowadays; they are mostly met by hollow rebuttals. Sometimes politicians fail to account or answer to legitimate questions on matters of public interests. Perhaps it’s hubris: the Labour Party feels unassailable with its historical lead in the polls and the surging economy, and an Opposition that has yet to begin to reverse the political momentum. 

Yet the government’s weariness of the threat from Brussels might account for its nervousness about the doggedness of the protests which are evolving into wider and better-organised rallies. The protests keep the issue in the media, creating immediacy in the political spheres in Brussels. Perhaps that’s why the government is keen to banish Daphne’s shrine, even resorting to hasty sweeps by government officials in the darkness of the night.

In Malta you only have to stir things up at the shrine. The tribes are then roused, their clamours and rabbles degenerating into Malta’s peculiar personal and parochial politics, making it personal about Daphne. They conjure her writings – its supposed tone of divisiveness and superiority, its personal attacks, its anti-Labour prejudice – and it becomes an argument about whether such a controversial persona deserves to be remembered in the first place.

Daphne wasn’t easy, she could be scathing and judgemental, every time I worked with her we fell out – once in an e-mail she dismissed me as “unhinged” and told me not to contact her again, then two years later she contacted me! She also had humanity, she didn’t bear grudges, although her sense of moral outrage tended towards puritanism – that always makes someone at least partly overbearing.

But Daphne’s foibles, and the uncompromising fieriness deployed in her prose, does not mitigate from the horror and magnitude of the assassination. Irrespective of the person, let’s not lose sight of the fundamentals: a journalist was assassinated for what she knew or what she was on to, and no self-respecting country can allow whoever did that to get away with it.

A crime against journalism is a crime against the country, but the person or persons who masterminded that crime are still out there.

And now that the three assassins have been presumably caught, it should be possible for the entire conspiracy to be solved. 

The government has to reinvigorate the investigation, to explore creative ways to solve the case. For the way things stand today – the assassination unsolved, political accountability shirked, wider issues not tackled – makes the government politically insensate.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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