On a sunny afternoon near the hamlet of Bidnija in Malta, a small crowd gathered by the side of a rural road to remember one of the country’s best-known journalists.
It has been four years this October since Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in a bombing just a short distance from her home.
But despite international attention to the journalist’s death and her work uncovering corruption, little has changed in terms of Malta’s press freedom environment, analysts and local journalists say.
Barriers to access, the use of lawsuits as a form of harassment and an over-reliance on state funding are all cited as ongoing issues. Rights groups have also said that Malta’s two main parties dominate media ownership — and by extension, press coverage itself.
Caruana Galizia was widely known in Malta, where her Running Commentary blog had an online readership to rival Malta’s established newspapers. She was known as a journalist unafraid to upset the status quo in her reporting on alleged corruption.
“Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination was an incredible shock to the nation,” Caroline Muscat, founder of The Shift news website, told VOA. “It was almost spectacular, in the sense that it was so clearly a message that was being sent to anybody who dared to question corruption.”
It took a while for Malta’s journalists to come to terms with the killing, said Herman Grech, editor-in-chief of the Times of Malta.
“It was quite possibly the biggest blow we’ve ever had,” Grech told VOA. “Daphne was not somebody random. Everybody knew Daphne Caruana Galizia. Everybody knew her writing, and everybody knew what she stood for. She was, I would say, loved and resented in equal measure.”
A court in February sentenced one person to 15 years in prison for his role in the killing. And in August 2021, Yorgen Fenech, one of Malta’s wealthiest businessmen, was indicted on murder charges. Fenech is pleading not guilty.
An official public inquiry into her death in July found that Maltese authorities “created an atmosphere of impunity, generated by the highest echelons.”
The inquiry made recommendations, including setting up a police unit that focuses on journalists at serious risk and amending the Constitution to recognize journalism as a pillar of democracy that the state has a responsibility to safeguard.
Ensuring those recommendations are implemented has become a focus for media rights groups.
“What we want to see is proper press freedom reform that really leads to an improvement in the situation here for journalists,” said Tom Gibson, the European Union representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Gibson, along with members of Article 19, Reporters Without Borders and other press freedom groups, met with local journalists and officials including Prime Minister Robert Abela and Police Commissioner Angelo Gafa while in Malta to mark the anniversary of Caruana Galizia’s death.
Abela committed to working with press freedom organizations on legislation regarding the use of lawsuits against journalists, Gibson told VOA. He said the prime minister also pledged that media affiliated with his Labour Party would not run campaigns against journalists during upcoming elections.
“I think Prime Minister Abela wants to show to us that he is going to put in place reforms,” Gibson said. “Now what we would want to show to him is that we will track these reforms and come back to him, if they don’t work.”
Malta’s Washington embassy spokesperson told VOA the government is committed to addressing the recommendations in the public inquiry.
“The government is determined that the necessary legal and institutional reforms are carried out and that journalists are better protected,” the representative told VOA. “Media freedom is fundamental for our society.”
Journalists Grech and Muscat said some reforms have been implemented, but largely the situation has not improved. To Grech, the heart of the problem is that the government does not acknowledge the importance of the media.
“The government just simply does not understand the role of the media for democracy,” Grech said. “The most important thing is that the government has to acknowledge that the media is the fourth pillar of democracy.”
Muscat said another problem is the reliance even independent news outlets have on government advertising and state funding. The issue was raised in the public inquiry report, which said that such reliance risks exposing outlets to pressure.
Despite the challenging environment, journalists have not been deterred.
Three weeks after Caruana Galizia’s death, Muscat founded The Shift, an online investigative news site.
“Immediately, I felt that we needed to send a message back to the perpetrators, that you can’t do this to one of us, and even if you do, then you will not silence the story,” Muscat said. “And that’s what we’ve been doing for the last four years.”
Muscat said The Shift continues to face barriers to access, including to government events that other news outlets can attend.
But despite that, “we are absolutely determined to make sure that there is a positive outcome following [Daphne’s] assassination,” Muscat said. “At least she would not have died in vain.”