Sod national unity - Mark Anthony Falzon
Five o’clock on Monday afternoon found me getting ready to reply to a stack of student e-mails. As I do, I casually turned on the radio for some background comfort. I knew the minute I heard the Prime Minister speak about the freedom of expression that something terrible had happened to Daphne Caruana Galizia.
My first thought when I learnt what that something was, was “What took them so long?” I was shocked, but not at all surprised. This is to Caruana Galizia’s great credit, but it is also a symptom of the sort of despondency that has overtaken many of us in the face of, in her own last words, a desperate situation.
Caruana Galizia was three things, two of which Joseph Muscat wants us to forget. First, a fine columnist and commentator generally. Her writing was refreshingly free of rhetoric and the kind of didactic sermonising that plagues public commentary in Malta. Nine times out of 10 she would show that the nail had a head that wasn’t the one everyone else was aiming at; she would then proceed to hit that head very, very hard. Her writing could also be humane and especially so with the powerless, which is why her house was targeted by racists in 2006.
Second, she was an investigative journalist who broke some of the biggest stories of recent years. That part of her work was probably what led to her assassination. It didn’t help then, and it doesn’t now, that she worked largely alone. That was because she believed that backbone was hopelessly in short supply. I think she was right, and I have only one journalist in mind – also a woman, as it happens – who has the competence and resolve to pick up where Caruana Galizia left off.
She was also, it has to be said, a gossip blogger. That part, which certainly did its bit to earn her a devoted following, was not her main contribution. While it made her the object of a visceral hatred, it wasn’t what killed her. Cynically tapping into that vein even as he claimed to renounce it, the Prime Minister chose to grouse on and on about her gossipy side in his speech in Parliament on Wednesday. We weren’t impressed: it is as irrelevant now as the ġid kbir (great abundance) lavished on us by his government.
In what follows, I shall set myself two questions. First, whether or not the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia was a political one and, second, whether or not it had anything to do with the freedom of expression.
The first answer to the first question is that we don’t really know. The coverage in the international press has tended to give the impression that the government of Malta dispatched its sternest critic. This is as unfair as it is probably inaccurate. Certainly our government would not dare plagiarise the work of certain Central Asian despots who are among its closest chums.
The second answer is that the assassination was nothing if not profoundly political. I had a conversation yesterday with someone who has lived for most of his life in Britain, as a scholar and artist. He is the last person you would associate with Maltese politics, and yet he told me that Caruana Galizia’s murder had jolted him to the horrors of corruption and its vicious twin.
Whether or not the assassination was commissioned by politicians is one thing. The point is that people are asking political questions to which they expect political answers, preferably ones that involve tangible action. They also realise that Caruana Galizia was murdered in an alley made dark by the collusion between crime, big money, and politics. Tragically, Daphne Caruana Galizia is now down there with Karin Grech and Raymond Caruana.
It matters that those murders remain unsolved. It matters that inquiries that involve politicians more often than not hit a blank wall. It matters that people increasingly feel that politicians and their associates are untouchable. It matters that high-powered crime always, everywhere, shares its bed with political complaisance and complicity. Not a political murder? Not at all, and the Pope is a Muslim.
Which brings me to the freedom of expression. Again, there are two wildly different answers. The first is that this wasn’t about journalists specifically and what they might write or say. I doubt the people who ordered the assassination – let alone those who carried it out – care a hoot about the freedom of expression. I imagine they care only, and a lot, about their skins and bank accounts.
In any case Caruana Galizia was not exactly a spokeswoman for Maltese journalists and their bravery. It was obvious she thought of herself, and perhaps one or two others, as rare exceptions to a general rule of docility. I suspect she would be unhappy to see her memory appropriated by people she openly and regularly described as party hacks, lily-livered, or both.
Except there’s something else. Monday’s was the last in a series of car-bomb murders. The Prime Minister has reassured us that there is nothing the matter with the police, and that those crimes remain unsolved because the families of the victims failed to cooperate. Assuming he’s telling the truth, what this really means is that the families know full well that the alternative to silence is not justice, but death.
In other words, the Prime Minister has effectively told us that the State can no longer be relied on to protect citizens against an escalating cycle of high-powered crime. If this isn’t chilling, I don’t know what is. It’s especially chilling now that it is no longer a case of criminals picking each other off. Monday’s was one small step for high-powered crime, one giant leap for the rest of us. Now, no one is safe – least of all journalists, whose job it is to investigate and write. Now, those of them who do their job properly know they may well end up blown to bits. Circuitously, Caruana Galizia’s death is very much about the freedom of expression.
We need the Prime Minister’s beloved għaqda nazzjonali (national unity) as turkeys need Christmas. To try to transform Caruana Galizia into some kind of martyr for national unity is to abuse her legacy – in other words, to take advantage of the fact that the dead are pliable. Caruana Galizia’s writing was effective precisely because it was divisive, and it is to that quality that we must now turn. Għaqda nazzjonali will only lead to hot air and more complicity. It is political action that has the power to break the morass of fear and collusion that turns cars into fireballs and their occupants into reluctant martyrs.