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How Daphne Caruana Galizia Burst Open The Floodgates To Maltese Activism

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Daphne Caruana Galizia was brutally murdered by a car bomb with the intention of silencing her forever. What the assassins never expected was the flood of activists who would stand up to be counted and continue her life’s work holding those in power accountable for their actions.

A year on from high-flying business mogul Yorgen Fenech’s arrest. Here’s how one brave woman whom he hoped would be silenced inspired more lives than he could ever hope for.

1. Before Caruana Galizia’s brutal murder, activism was scant

Before her murder in October 2017, protests in Malta were scarce and often heavily partisan. Rallying against a cause for the sake of justice as an end, unlinked to the political rallies of blue and red was largely unheard of.

Civil society groups didn’t even take to the streets when the Panama Papers scandal broke in 2015. When Caruana Galizia, still alive, released the infamous Egrant allegations it was PN Leader Simon Busuttil who lead the protests, making it easy to dismiss demonstrations as partisan.

Everything changed when Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in a car-bomb outside her home in October 2017.

It ushered in an inferno. International outrage, dozens of tense protests, direct actions and media houses came together with one clear message: the pen must conquer fear.

Suddenly, being an activist was more than a local niche hobby, it was a civic duty in the face of political chaos.

A week later, Malta saw thousands of people take to Valletta, demanding justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia. Equipped with banners and angry voices, citizens demanded reforms and the resignation of those that failed to prevent her death – then-Attorney General Peter Grech; then-Police Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar and then-Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.

2. Then came the birth of activist groups.

Il-Kenniesa, which had first formed during the last general election, rose to prominence demanding action against politicians entangled in impunity. Civil Society Network, a group of activists including politician Michael Brigulio, Manuel Delia and James Debono, galvanised the nation to take a stand in the largest non-partisan protest the country had seen in decades. It was the first taste of the myriad of protests to come.

Then came Occupy Castille – a woman-led camp out outside the Prime Minister’s Office. It turned into Occupy Justice, a protest group made of women from all walks of life demanding answers to the political femicide.

Manuel Delia, an outspoken blogger and activist would go on to be a leading voice in the fight for justice for the journalist.

The crickets heard on the activist scene in Malta were no more. It was no longer a rarity to take to the streets. The rug covering politician’s misdeeds was ready to be ripped open.

From the left: Occupy Justice, Manuel Delia and Michael Briguglio

From the left: Occupy Justice, Manuel Delia and Michael Briguglio

A year after Caruana Galizia’s murder, justice group Republikka formed and brought in a tangible fight for Malta’s frail rule of law. They opened a historic constitutional case and increased pressure to introduce institutional reforms for better separation of powers. 

The Daphne Caruana Galizia memorial suffused with flowers, posters and candles at the Great Siege Monument was cleared every evening on direct order from then-Justice Minister Owen Bonnici, but was stubbornly recreated every morning by activists. Countless stunts, banners and public protest art sprung across the island and become normal-place.

Dozens of protests were held, with one nearly every day in November 2019.

Repubblika forms in 2019 and the Daphne memorial

Repubblika forms in 2019 and the Daphne memorial

All these people deserve more credit than they get. Just five months after the assassination, the whole nation was growing numb. Attendance to the monthly vigils for Caruana Galizia dwindled, fewer people turned up for protests and we turned our Facebook profile pictures back from black to our normal portraits.

3. These groups kept fighting for what was right.

It all came to a fever pitch in December 2019. Yorgen Fenech was arrested as the prime murder suspect a few weeks prior, which in turn erupted into the largest protest in Malta’s history.

Thousands people streamed into Valletta to demand political resignations that were already two years too late. 

If it wasn’t for these persistent activist groups Joseph Muscat, Keith Schembri, Konrad Mizzi, Silvio Valletta, Peter Grech, would still hold their positions of power.

Even more seasoned activists Moviment Grafitti deserve all credit they get.

As the only major activist group for decades, they had a huge vacuum to fill, fighting for our rights on multiple fronts – for better living conditions, our scarce environment, impunity and social justice. They showed Malta how to put away partisanship in favour of greater good.

We’ve all protested but how many have stormed Castille?

4. Daphne Caruana Galizia’s sons Matthew, Paul and Andrew are prime examples of defiant activism.

The journalist touched many of us, but these are the men moulded by this incredible woman. Matthew, Paul and Andrew have sought help from any institution that would hear them: sending open letters to the Council of Europe, working with Europol, speaking on international interviews like on Italy’s Rai Due, the Guardian, the BBC and Reuters. 

What they’ve been able to achieve against all odds is a monumental feat. They’ve fought against a government and horrific claims that they were behind their mother’s murder, all for simple matters like a public inquiry.

They have truly inherited Caruana Galizia’s baton for justice. She was facing 43 civil and five criminal libel suits at the time of her assassination. Besides the arduous task of taking on an entire political culture of deeply-rooted corruption, her family are still fighting some of her harassment cases.

And if that isn’t enough, the family launched the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation – a genuine platform to support present and future journalists in the pursuit of the truth.

If any activist could learn a lesson from them, it’s that if you believe in something, scream about it until your lungs explode.

5. Daphne’s influence activism spills beyond political corruption.

 

It would be wrong to solely credit her tragic death for activism in Malta. Caruana Galizia was a one-woman powerhouse in a violent, corrupt and misogynistic space. No matter what was thrown at her, she remained undeterred.

It should be no surprise then that an army of women has come forward with boldly progressive agenda, like the openly pro-choice women of Young Progressive Beings. Like Caruana Galizia, they’ve faced public backlash and death threats for standing up for what they believe in.

Since her death, abortion went from a hushed issue scarcely mentioned at dinner tables to being debated on the national front. Last year, Malta had its first pro-choice rally. Today, all eyes are on the government to reform the decades-old sexual health policy, thanks to a surge of activist groups who risked their reputations to stand up.

The link between the fearless attitudes of these activists and Caruana Galizia is clear. The aftermath of her death is a hydra of activists – try shut one down and a plethora of others emerge.

It’s not just sexual health activism – we’re seeing bold fresh faces everywhere we look. Last year, 20-year-old Sasha Vella single-handedly mobilised thousands of people to stand against a powerful lobby of developers and the Central Link Project in Attard, which would see over 500 historic trees be cut down.

Before Caruana Galizia became synonymous with rule of law, she wrote vehemently for the environment and was subject to violent attacks because of it. Young people like Vella are picking up where she left off.

Sasha Vella

Sasha Vella

That same year, at just 16, student Eve Borg Bonello became the youthful face of the protests.

In December of 2019, she commanded the attention of thousands of people with her shouts for change. Her action was met with death threats and a barrage of insults, with one memorable threat alluding to the assassination of Caruana Galizia.

Eve Borg Bonello addressing a protest, by Mike Bonello Ghio

Eve Borg Bonello addressing a protest, by Mike Bonello Ghio

6. There are plenty of other young leaders in Malta.

Steve, Rachelle and Xandru

Steve, Rachelle and Xandru

Activism has proven to be contagious with a never-ending array of young leaders coming forward to make their voices heard.

Steve Zammit Lupi, a young climate activist and independent local councillor, is showing the importance of community work to solve everyday problems. Rachelle Deguara, meanwhile, leads young people in Malta’s progressive third party ADPD.

And what about Matthew Chircop, the young activist educating the nation about trans issues? Or Xandru Cassar, who staged a one-man protest for migrant rights outside Castille, despite tirades to close the ports?

And who could forget about the army of young people that marched for our climate? The list of young impactful people is growing by the minute.

7. And now that activist culture is rife, we must fight for structures for citizens to organise easily. 

It is clear that there is momentum in the fight for justice for Caruana Galizia and the rampant abuse in the country, with arrests made and reforms to our judicial system.

However, it should be even more apparent that a decades-old system of corruption, unaccounted environmental destruction and frail women’s rights aren’t solved after a few organised protests.

Malta doesn’t have sufficient structures for more non-profit organisations like the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation to thrive, because they’re lumped with voluntary organisations.

We need to push for legislation that would allow citizens to militarise their efforts more effectively. This will allow more groups to form, voice their concerns and pressure powers to listen to them.

We must also be more willing to turn up when it counts and ensure we hold all our public officials to account. When Miriam Pace died earlier this year after being crushed underneath her collapsing home, the nation was outraged.

However, people still failed to turn up and months later, there have been at least two similar incidents. Action cannot happen when an issue is fashionable. This is a war, not a battle.

If the Daphne protests have taught us anything, it’s that it takes an insurmountable amount of will to carry on shouting, even in the face of threats or impotency.

If you believe in something go out and fight, a woman died for your right to do it.

Did you take part in the anti-corruption protests of 2019? Submit your photos and videos to human rights NGO aditus – the chosen submissions will be published in an online memory archive and other publications. Find more details here.

READ NEXT: EXPLAINED: Malta's New Equality Law And How It Could Change Everyday Life

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