It’s a Thursday. A pudgy 10-year-old boy puts on his school uniform and rushes up to the stationery that’s 500 metres up the road. He pays a few cents for the Malta Independent and before he’s out of the shop, he’s flicking through the news pages to get to Daphne Caruana Galizia’s column. His eyes are locked.
As he stumbles back, he devours the article, inch by inch, his mind on fire. And as soon as he gets home, he points to his now red, sweaty face to persuade his mum he’s got a fever and can’t possibly go to school.
He had election fever. Prime Minister Alfred Sant was scheduled to give a press conference that morning and Daphne Caruana Galizia was expected to attend.
Awaiting with bated breath and a fake cough, my 10-year-old self couldn’t wait to watch her.
I was transfixed. A slender woman with a stern face, approximately my mum’s age, asking the questions I wanted answered in a familiar accent I rarely got to hear on TV.
Sometimes I forgot she was the mother of my school friends Andrew, Matthew and Paul. She wasn’t just one of the San Anton School parents to me. She was a celebrity, an idol of sorts.
Flash forward to October 2017. I’m about to turn 30 next month. I run my own news website and I get a call from a friend at MaltaToday.
“Did you hear anything about a car bomb and Daphne?”
“I heard a car exploded in Bidnija.”
My heart sunk. I knew it was true that instant. It wouldn’t be a car bomb in Bidnija and not be Daphne. The day we all feared had arrived.
As I tried to sleep later that night, my mind could only think about the horror of being blown up. I wondered what it would feel like in those split seconds of consciousness, before death, to comprehend the sheer physical violence about to overcome your body at that moment. It made me feel sick.
I woke up the next morning hoping it was a nightmare but Facebook quickly reminded me otherwise. Unable to make sense of anything, I turned to our WhatsApp thread, trying to find some form of solace in words she had told me.
Daphne Caruana Galizia famously hated Facebook but she loved WhatsApp. She made public calls on her blog for people to add her on the number +356 99493545. She taught them how to enable the two-step verification process for extra security. And she deleted every new chat to keep no records.
“Last seen yesterday at 13.39.” My heart breaks.
I scroll up to the first message in the thread and realised it is dated 12th December 2016. Not even a year ago, but it feels like such a different time already.
She sends me a link of an interview I carried out with the then CEO of Vitals Global Healthcare, a company which had just won a contract to part-privatise three Maltese hospitals. She hated it and thought I was just lapping up their bullshit.
“Basically, they’ve given three of Malta’s hospitals to a company that didn’t exist at the time. And the only question you should be asking is: why did they do it?”
The next message came more than a month later and it was similar. Another Lovin Malta link, this time an analysis of a moving interview given by PN’s deputy leader Mario De Marco.
“Point 4. The real reason is that they have Adrian Hillman in common. Surely you haven’t forgotten that.”
She was referring to Adrian Hillman, the former managing director at The Times of Malta where I spent five formative years working as a reporter. Hillman was forced to resign after he was questioned over allegations involving bribery with the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff Keith Schembri, also named in Panama Papers.
“I think somebody needs to ambush Adrian. It’s amazing how that big story had been allowed to die. Neither political party has an interest in keeping it alive, and MaltaToday for some reason started out by defending him, presumably on the principle that if I ‘attack’ him then he must be right. The Times obviously don’t want to cover it and The Malta Independent seems to have let it go.”
There are dozens of similar exchanges.
“Please remove that reference to ‘Nationalist’ blogger,” she said about an article that quoted her. “I’m not a politician, I don’t belong to a political party, and I don’t work for one. I don’t see anyone referring to Claire Bonello as an AD columnist or Michela Spiteri as a Labour one on the basis of how they vote.”
I removed the reference.
Things got lighter when we chatted about some of her stories, such as the one about Economy Minister Chris Cardona visiting the Acapulco club:
“Notice that nobody in cabinet is supporting him. They believe it’s true. He’s a well known addict of these clubs,” she says, as we’re separately watching Net News coverage by Mario Frendo.
“Mario is so deadpan amazing. No expression. He approached them (the women at Acapulco club) with the words ‘let me show you something’. I laughed so much I almost missed what came next.”
Then there was this complaint about a story I wrote about former PN president Ann Fenech:
“Your post illustrates everything that’s wrong with people’s shallow thinking and you should be better than your readers and not as dumb as they are because you are not dumb at all and should do better, Chris.”
I always wondered why she’d text me her criticism instead of slamming me on her blog like she did with so many others, including fellow journalists.
This time she was forthcoming with her explanation.
“I will always tell you what I think because I have known you since you were small and know how good you can be but you should be less cynical in your approach. It is tempting to use your power over an audience to play with their responses but it’s fundamentally wrong and you will ultimately lose respect where it counts most.”
Sliema front was lit up by candlelight. Thousands of people lined the entire promenade from Sliema to St Julian’s and marched in her honour. Some crying. Some having awkward small talk. Some cracking jokes and giggling before remembering where they were. Many faces were familiar. Many others were not. It was as if someone had shouted out “who adores Daphne?” and instead of a few sheepish people saying “I don’t like her but…” thousands of people stood up and said: “ME!” Including some people she had isolated in the past.
It was a great show of respect. It was truly comforting.
I scroll down further. It’s April 21st, six months ago. She had just broken her major Egrant story.
I messaged her.
“Do you plan to publish documents today or ever? And can I ask you an on-the-record question on why you have not passed them onto the police? Our audience is asking.”
She replied with a scolding.
“Journalists should never pass documents on to the police. We don’t work for the police. I can’t believe people ask that. If sources wanted to go to the police, they would do so themselves. And if journalists become people who give stiff to the police, nobody would ever trust us again. The reason why people trust me with things is because I advertise the fact that I never cooperate with the police.”
Me: “Fair enough, but do you plan to publish the documents yourself or not?”
“You can’t ask me that, Chris.”
22nd April. The story got 1.017 million views, she told me.
I replied with something about Marlene Farrugia giving a good speech.
“Joseph has a problem with the ladies. He’s going to end up being brought down by a bunch of angry women,” she wrote.
And then it hit me.
“Does that mean your whistleblower is a woman?”
“She will eventually speak herself.”
That’s what told me this was bigger than every other story she had worked on. There was someone else who was going to put her life on the line for this. I soon found myself delving deeply into the Egrant stories and trying to verify and second-source everything she had written. I figured that if everything checked out and then she published the documents, the story would be confirmed.
It’s now May 2nd, a month away from the general election.
I had spent three weeks investigating her story, fact-checking what Brian Tonna said, grilling her about her whistleblower, speaking to every source imaginable.
Instead of going to the office, I would spend the day writing at home, WhatsApping and making calls undisturbed.
After a very long night working on the story, I sent her this message:
“Hi Daphne, hope you’re well and sorry if I woke you. I’m messaging you because now I really feel I need to see a copy of the scans. I’ve checked out every other part of the story and I’m 99% of the way to double-sourcing everything. I even have some big new information corroborating your details about Pilatus Bank transactions. If I verify those scans for myself, I feel like I can close this in a really big way. And without them, I start to doubt the rest of my information even though it all fits together like a glove. I really need to know why you have not made them public and I’m here to beg you to share them with me.”
Her reply devastated me.
“Chris, I couldn’t even if I wanted to because I don’t have them myself.”
June 1st. The day before the day of silence, on the eve of the election.
Me: “So what’s the story with Egrant declarations? Whatever happened to the cloud-uploaded scans?”
Daphne: “I spoke to her today. She doesn’t want to do anything. The story isn’t going to end with the election anyway.”
It kind of did, though. A resounding victory for Labour at the polls seemed to shut everybody up.
Before we knew it was it was August 13th and she had already turned her criticism towards the new PN leader Adrian Delia.
“Funny that he’s not hysterical about interest accumulating at 580,000 euros a year on a debt of 7.2m, but then gets hysterical when somebody exposes it.”
And then in another message: “Textbook tosser.”
The month before she died, she messaged me again to criticise an article I wrote entitled Despite Everything, It Absolutely Must Be Adrian Delia.
“You have made exactly the same mistake with Delia that you made with Muscat: ranking a person’s character as completely unimportant, when all decisions derive from a person’s character and that’s exactly why Malta is in such a mess now (though you probably don’t think so, if matters like institutions, the police, democracy and the economy are not important to you).”
I said I’m sticking to my guns on this one.
“The mistake you make is to think Delia is less conservative. He is not. He is ULTRA conservative and comes from the hard right. That’s why Frank Portelli and he are working in tandem. Delia is MORE conservative than (Chris) Said…. last night Delia messages party electors pledging to protect life from conception. Why that? The NP will not fade into total insignificant with Delia. Instead, it will shatter. People who don’t share his ultra-conservative views and who don’t approve of his crooked ways will simply leave (if they are MPs/officials) or stop voting for the PN (like me and almost all my friends who know him to be a crook.) So if now the PN is 36,000 down, after September it’s going to be 60,000 down.”
She sends me a Lovin Malta article about a MaltaToday survey that shows Labour leading by 70,000 votes, captioned: “Qed tara?” (You see?)
“He keeps digging an already very deep grave,” I admit. “My only consolation is that he’ll be replaceable when they lose the EP election by that magnitude.”
“Well, you have to write an article saying so, to make up for the article saying he should be elected leader. The man’s a joke.”
Me: “I still think Chris Said wouldn’t have fared any better. And to be fair, it’s still very early days. But I tend to agree. The worst part is his actual politics. Very regressive.”
Her: “No, Chris. It’s because he came out of nowhere. People don’t rally behind somebody who walked in off the street. It makes them feel ridiculous. Chris Said has a long history in politics. People don’t feel like morons getting behind him. We’re talking adults and political support here, not preteens and a boy-band. Grown-ups with a brain aren’t going to get behind a political nonentity.”
She sends me a breaking story from her website revealing that Delia was 90 minutes late for his Opposition leader swearing-in because he was shopping for clothes at Massimo Dutti in Sliema.
I don’t reply.
And then… October 16th.
“Hi Daphne, are you ok?”
“There was a car bomb near your house.”
She had been dead for an hour and a half.
I don’t know why I am sharing these messages. Maybe it’s wrong of me to do so but I’m comforted by the fact that she never really told me anything that wouldn’t have also said publicly. I figure it’s a way of letting her have the final word and letting us hear her voice again. Breaking her silence beyond the grave, perhaps.
I always wanted to interview Daphne and address some of my own criticism towards her. I never quite agreed with her categorisation of people as good or bad. It felt simplistic and, more often than not, partisan too.
She always refused an interview but I lived in hope until the day she died.
It’s October 12th, 2018. I’ve just revisited this article which I had originally written a day after she died, but decided not to publish. Back then it felt too soon. Now it feels too late.
So much has changed since Daphne Caruana Galizia was blown up. The fear we all felt the day it happened feels so distant today. The outrage that was palpable on the Sliema front that night seems to have dwindled.
There seems to be more anger today that some people have tried to keep her memory alive through a memorial in front of the law courts, than about the fact that one of the country’s journalistic institutions was blown to smithereens.
The outcome of the Egrant inquiry didn’t help. Her biggest story dismissed by a respected Magistrate who spent millions investigating only to find that the crucial document she refused to publish was not valid.
I miss Daphne. I don’t miss feeling like she could rubbish me on her blog at any moment. I’m sure many feel that way, more so those who actually experienced that treatment on a weekly basis. But I miss her articles and her WhatsApp messages. I miss her perspective, her brutal honesty and her relentless courage to fight for whatever she believed was the truth.
Most of all, I miss believing she could never be silenced.