18.06.18 - On the Road - Malta, Corruption and Free Speech
“Everything you think is normal is not happening here. The normal response to the brutal assassination of a woman, and a journalist, and a wife and a mother and a sister and a daughter - it isn’t met with a humane reaction. With the obvious gut reaction which is that this is shocking and horrific.”
In the middle of the Mediterranean, jutting out of the sea, the islands of Malta stand against the waves crashing around them.
Since joining the EU in 2004, Malta has adopted the Euro as its currency, had GDP increase substantially and seen the tourism industry explode. The country held the rotating EU presidency in 2017 and its capital, Valletta, is a current EU capital of culture. But despite the veneer of normalcy, there is a darker side to life on the island that has been making headlines and dividing the population.
“I’m a writer and I can’t quite find the words - [Malta] is oozing with abnormality.”
Lizzie Eldridge is the author of two books, a past nominee for Malta’s National Book Award, and an activist with the anti-corruption group Occupy Justice, the women-led group formed almost immediately following the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia
Since its formation, the group has been perhaps the most visible of all the anti-corruption groups in Malta, making headlines around the world with a number of high profile demonstrations.
“Occupy Justice came into being almost immediately following the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia” says Lizzie, “It grew organically. [...] We had a big demonstration the Sunday after she was killed and the streets of Valletta were full of people - absolutely full.” She recounts, “It was a really powerful demonstration.”
Daphne Caruana Galizia was the leading voice in reporting on and exposing corruption in Malta. In the wake of the release of the Panama Papers - a tranche of leaked documents detailing the murky world of offshore financing - Daphne was meticulous in reporting on Maltese officials who had been implicated.
The Panama Papers had a global reach and identified thousands of individuals in big business and government involved in offshore banking and other obscure financial arrangements. Malta, however, was the only European Union country to have a government minister implicated in the form of then Minister for Health and Energy, Konrad Mizzi, with others close to the government also identified. Despite these revelations, Mizzi remained a minister in Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s government, merely moving to another position.
This was a high profile example of what many domestically and internationally have termed a ‘culture of impunity’ in the country.
Rita, an actress and resident of Sliema, a distict bordering the capital, was clear in her sense of disappointment in the government following the scandal.
“I’m feeling very angry, very let down, very betrayed” she said, “Things are staring people in the face and nothing is being done about it.”
When it comes to any meaningful action being taken in regards to investigating corruption, she, like many in Malta, remains highly skeptical,
“Everybody’s asking for ‘proof, proof, proof” - They have the proof!” she says angrily, “but they do not want to accept [it] because they do not want to let go of the government”
Daphne’s assassination and the government’s response caused outrage and served as the catalyst for the popular anti-corruption movement, but it also polarized the population with some supporters of the government going on the attack against anti-corruption campaigners. Online hate groups formed, hurling insults and vitriol at activists and inciting people to intimidation, physical attacks and sexual violence against anti-corruption campaigners.
As a result, save for those few directly involved in activism or individuals passionate enough about the issue to voice their opinion, there is a palpable sense of reluctance when it comes to speaking publicly about corruption. For those that have chosen to do, some have seen their addresses and workplaces shared online, their image posted on the hate-groups’ web pages alongside insults and hateful remarks, and received threats of violence.
Besides this intense intimidation, the more subtle but all too real fear of being ostracized in Malta’s small community of only 440,000 people is keenly felt.
Alexander Hili is one of those who has chosen to speak out. He is the spokesperson for the youth-led activist group Awturi, who have focussed on getting students and young people engaged in activism.
“People want to speak out but they are scared. I get these messages every day, every week, ‘I want to speak out, but I am worried’” he explains.
“If you’re finishing university [...] you’re looking to settle down, you’re looking to get married, and you’re told you can’t get the job you wanted because you’ve spoken out? You’d prefer not to speak out and get the job.”
Alexander is approaching the end of his studies, and he has noted how his public stance on fighting corruption in the country has impacted his future career options.
“People often tell me, ‘yes yes, we’d love to hire you - but stop what you’re doing. For our sake and your sake. Otherwise, we can’t really hire you.” he said, “I understand where they’re coming from, [...] people boycott services, boycott others. Certain people will not speak to you even though they’ve been your lifetime friend, even though they’re your neighbor. They won’t speak to you if they’re told not to.”
For this reason, breaking this “tribal mentality” is a key part of Awturi’s work.
“We try as much as possible to engage in discussion. We don’t want a comment war. We don’t want a troll war. We don’t want a fight. We want to discuss with you and see what your opinion is, and tell you ours” Alexander explained.
This sentiment of fostering discussion in the increasingly polarized political debate in Malta is echoed by Lizzie of Occupy Justice,
“Politics is about the people, it’s about discussion, it’s about discourse, it’s about talking, it’s about critical analysis, critical argument. Using rationality and reason.”
It would be easy to get discouraged in hearing stories of people scared to voice their opinion and exercise their right to free speech in a European Union country, given that this is one of the core values the EU is supposed to represent. When asked about this however, Alexander focussed on the advances made and the stories of those who have chosen to speak out regardless of the risks. He pointed to the progress in public discourse since the death of Daphne,
“She published hard journalism. She published stories we needed to hear - She’s dead because it was one person.” he explained. “But now we’re a thousand, now we’re everywhere.”
“Civil society has grown, and civil society in Malta is finally holding the government accountable for it’s actions. Slowly but surely people are listening to us.” he says “and that’s the important thing.”