Conversations on press freedom #1: an introduction

World Press Freedom Day falls on the 3ʳᵈ of May. To celebrate this, we're hosting a series of interviews with journalists and activists to be published over the next few weeks. Our Artistic Director Euchar Gravina will be exploring press freedom as a fundamental component of any healthy democracy and a key tool in transforming communities.

Two and a half years ago, in the afternoon of 16ᵗʰ October 2017, I was working in my office at St John’s Waterloo. My phone, as usual, was on silent-mode. I didn’t notice the small flashing light at the top left corner, announcing a new notification. My best friend from Malta had just sent me a message, “Check the news now”. Anxious with what he had just learnt and realising that I hadn’t registered his text, he started calling. The now bright green screen with an unflattering picture of him (chosen on purpose) was hard to ignore and I took the call.

Earlier that afternoon, journalist and writer Daphne Caruana Galizia had left her house in Bidnija, a small village in the North West of Malta, to drive to the bank. Some time before, her accounts had been frozen through a court application by the lawyers of Malta’s Economy Minister in a libel case. She had just published an article on her blog Running Commentary at 2:35pm. The last two sentences of that afternoon’s post read, “There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate”.

While she was driving down the road that from her house takes you to the larger town of Mosta, a huge explosion turned Daphne’s car into a massive ball of fire and threw it into a field. The bomb attached to the underside of her carseat killed her instantly. Only a few hundred metres away, at the top of the hill, her son Matthew heard the powerful explosion and rushed outside. Later, on Facebook, he wrote, “I looked down and there were my mother’s body parts all around me”.

The news of Daphne’s assassination, relayed over the phone and through constantly refreshed web-pages, came to me as a shock. I was in disbelief yet, in hindsight, I should have realised that the local political culture of Malta was perfectly suited for such an attack.

Memorial to Daphne Caruana Galizia (Republic Street, Valletta)

I was born in Malta in 1994 and lived for the majority of my first twenty years within its 17 miles (that’s five miles less than the length of the Jubilee line). An archipelago of islands lying between Sicily and Libya, its history is dramatically colourful with buildings predating the oldest of pyramids, its language combining Semitic roots with Italian and English, and with the sun almost never more than a day away. Every time I visit, I always make time to let myself get lost in the winding limestone streets of the wall-city of Mdina or to go up and down the step-streets that make-up the Manhattan-grid-shaped capital city of Valletta towards the Grand Harbour.

The Grand Harbour (Malta) - Photo: Mike Nahlii

Growing up in Malta, I remember the (bitterly-fought) campaign to join the European Union in 2003/4 and adopting the Euro currency in 2008. More recently, Malta held the Presidency of the European Council, hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting twice and was crowned European Capital City of Culture. After the turbulent decades that followed Independence in 1964, Malta seemed to be progressively aligning itself with the European ideals of freedom, justice and democracy with the turn of the millennium. However, the situation on the ground has been much more complicated.

Maltese culture tends to thrive on being very binary and whilst in some few instances this can encourage harmless competition, in most cases it chokes progress and creativity. This nature is deep-rooted: from local music band clubs that organise the traditional summer festa (with a rivalry of two in most towns and villages manifested in fireworks, street decorations and large mass-gatherings) and the divide between those who support the English and the Italian football teams (which comes alive during every international football competition), to student and national politics. Two major political parties have dominated the local scene for the last sixty years and their unhealthy relationship with the media, its use and ownership has hindered Maltese democracy from flourishing.

The wall-city of Mdina, Malta's former capital city - Photo: Mike Nahlii

I came to know Daphne’s writing through her blog. Kicking off in the run-up to the 2008 General Election (won by just 1500 votes), it became one of the most visited websites in the country in a few years. From investigative reporting to commentary on politicians, society and world affairs, it combined her skills as a journalist, columnist and activist in a way that was unapologetic and daringly new to the local scene. Her writing was characterised by a heightened sense of humour, a critical flair and an impeccable eye for detail. The blog was her personal project, independent of any media organisation and sitting outside the mainstream structures of local press. In an environment where the media couldn’t face up to its challenges, Daphne’s stories – from Panama Papers to the privatisation of hospitals and new energy deals with Azerbaijan – proved to be groundbreaking and, increasingly, the only reliable news source in Malta.

In a small country where ‘everyone knows each other’ is quite an accurate fallacy, and where open commentary is not common (she was the first woman columnist not to use a pseudonym) the reactions to her writing were strong. The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation writes that