It could have been the murder of Gauri Lankesh in Bangalore all over again. Lankesh had won the Anna Politovskaya award for speaking out against right-wing Hindu extremism, championing women’s rights and opposing caste-based discrimination.
Anna Politkovskaya, writer and human rights activist, was gunned down in the stairwell of her Moscow flat.Understandably, the violent deaths of female journalists make the most impact emotionally. There was also Veronica Guerin, an intrepid investigative reporter in Ireland, whom gangsters shot dead in her car as she waited at a traffic light. And now 53-year-old Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, an outspoken critic of corruption and cronyism, has been blown to bits by a bomb hidden is her car, leaving behind her husband and three sons.
It’s not every day that the Pope writes a letter of condolence when a journalist dies. He did so when Ms Galizia was murdered. Her sons view her murder as a culmination of an assault on Malta’s rule of law and institutions. The well-intentioned international denunciations of the killing as an attack on freedom of expression sound strange, they say, for the battle has been raging for a long time even if it has been little remarked upon outside Malta.
The biggest of a three-island Mediterranean archipelago between Sicily and Libya, Malta is special. Although Roman Catholics, the Maltese call god “Allah”. I once saw a statue of the Virgin Mary in Valetta, the capital, and she was called “Sultanah”. It’s the only country in the world to be decorated with the George Cross (for valour during World War II) by the British monarch. For years the island’s second prime minister, Dom Mintoff of the Labour Party, elected in 1971, tried desperately to integrate Malta into the United Kingdom. Rebuffed, he became as anti-British as he was formerly pro, and converted the island into a republic in 1974. Now, Malta is the European Union’s smallest member. The recent brutal murder is believed to speak volumes about the island’s social and political morality.
Last week, the Labour government offered an award of a million euros ($1.2 million) for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for killing Ms Galizia. It said it was “fully committed to solving the murder” and to “bringing those responsible to justice. But neither the prime minister, Joseph Muscat, nor the opposition leader, Adrian Delia, attended the mass vigils to honour her memory. The defining moment in Malta’s recent history was the election of Mr Muscat’s Labour government in 2013, ending a quarter-century of near-unbroken Nationalist party rule. It appeared to some to be the next stage of modernisation of a country that did not permit divorce until 2011. Labour brought further social liberalisation in areas such as same-sex marriage and gender identity. Migrant workers have powered growth in a country of less than half-a-million people that has a long history of occupation and openness reflected in a language whose influences include Arabic, Italian and English.
Gross domestic product grew 5.5 per cent last year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Malta is home to many companies since it offers foreign investors substantial tax breaks. It is a leading host to flag of convenience shipping and boasts a flourishing gaming industry. Its property market has surged thanks to immigration, tourism and a scheme to sell nationality to foreigners in exchange for property investment and other requirements. But critics say the boom masks a more sinister story of growing political control over core public institutions. Malta now has its fifth full or acting police commissioner since the 2013 election, after several scandals. “That’s why people don’t have faith in the police,” said one young Maltese within hearing of police officers.
Caruana Galizia found a fresh target after the election in Mr Delia, the Nationalists’ new leader. At the time of her murder, he had five libel suits pending against her, which he says he has now dropped. Ms Galizia blogged last month about receiving threats from Mr Delia’s supporters, saying: “I’m finished, RIP, take a cyanide pill.” Mr Delia says he knows nothing about the harassment, but admits it “doesn’t look good”, adding that verbal aggression and murder are “worlds apart”.
Mr Muscat, Malta’s 43-year-old prime minister, has also been under intense pressure since the killing, with Ms Galizia’s children urging him to resign. He has been holding court in the baroque prime ministerial headquarters, where the entrance is flanked by suits of armour and a small cannon. Denying that his government is cronyist or abuses patronage, and insisting investigations into Panama Papers-linked allegations are not being stymied, as critics claim, he reassured EU leaders at a Brussels summit last week that the murder would be properly investigated. Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, spoke at the same gathering of the collective shock in Europe. The European Commission has raised concerns about Malta before.
A 2014 corruption report highlighted the risk of “executive discretion” in Maltese graft investigations. The commission said this year that no more such reports would be published. While Jean-Claude Juncker, the EC president, told Mr Muscat his victory was “a remarkable tribute to (his) leadership over the last years”, the commission has urged that the murderer or murderers be brought to justice. Beyond Malta’s shores, the murder has added edge to the escalating debate about threats to the rule of law in the EU. Critics say the island is an example of how deteriorating governance in some member states threatens the EU from within. Brussels has already clashed with Poland and Hungary over allegations of creeping authoritarianism. Malta, on paper a model of the financial and social liberalism promoted by the 28-member EU, presents another big test. Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy
Institute, says Malta’s troubles show the “gaping hole” in the EU’s ability to deal with problems of corruption and the vulnerability of institutions. “The attitude is to let countries correct these things themselves democratically,” she says. “But what if the state itself is not able — or willing — to self-correct?” Ms Galizia’s lawyer says he was defending her in at least 40 libel cases when she died, including 19 filed by a single businessman.
Gauri Lankesh’s murder also threw a harsh spotlight on the country’s political class and the institutions of state that are under its control or, at least, influence. It’s about two months since she was gunned down but all that we know despite a massive hunt by the Karnataka authorities is that her killers were professionals who shadowed her and used AK-47 weapons.
The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.