Around the world every day there are journalists putting their lives at risk in order to report the truth.

Often their families too face physical harm and intimidation.

These are the true heroes of our trade.  Those for whom speaking truth to power comes with real consequences.

Everyone who believes in the importance of journalism owes a debt of gratitude to these reporters, photographers and broadcasters.

In our new series we tell the stories of female hero journalists working around the globe. 

We believe their words need to be heard.  We believe their voices must never be silenced.

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Caroline Muscat lives her life next to the shadow of her former journalism colleague, Daphne Caruana Galizia, the prominent Maltese investigative journalist who was assassinated in 2017 by a car bomb. As founder and editor of the online investigative news portal The Shift her job, like that of Caruana Galizia’s, is to expose corruption at every level and hold the Maltese government to account.  “We have to make sure a few crooks in the country can’t jeopardise the values, not only of democracy but the pillars on which Europe is built. If the authorities had acted on what Daphne Caruana Galizia was revealing, she would be alive today.”

The Shift which Muscat founded in November 2017 – three weeks after Caruana Galizia was killed – was established as an investigative news outlet to address the shortfall of independent journalism in Malta and continue Caruana Galizia’s anti-corruption crusade. It was, and is, sorely needed. The media landscape in Malta remains bleak, says Muscat, and is dominated by the ownership of most media channels by the political parties. Reporters Without Borders ranks Malta 81st on their World Press Freedom Index for 2021, one of the lowest in the EU. Its position has slipped steadily since 2013 and the permanent silencing of Caruana Galizia has set a dangerous precedent for journalists like Muscat.

For Muscat, 47,  is recognised internationally for her commitment to uncovering corruption and scandals and for her continuation of Caruana Galizia’s legacy. The former head of news at the The Times and The Sunday Times of Malta, she has over 20 years’ experience as a journalist and has won numerous awards, including the Reporters With Borders prize for Independence in 2019.

The killing of Caruana Galizia rocked the country and provoked a global outcry from figures ranging from the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, to WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange – and even the Pope. Her death triggered a political earthquake which forced the resignation of the prime minister and sent shockwaves through the country which still rumble on four years later.

Caruana Galizia’s indomitable spirit to hold power to account lives on in Muscat and the wider civil society movement which was born following her murder that continues to call for justice. A public inquiry, which Muscat says “the government fought tooth and nail to make sure would not happen” was eventually forced through with the threat of legal proceedings and a landmark resolution from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

Now, anti-corruption figures like Muscat are ensuring that momentum for the findings of the 437-page inquiry are not lost as another election looms. “Our task as activists and journalists is to make sure that we never lose the focus and to make sure that the critical recommendations of the public inquiry are implemented. Then at least that is something towards saying that Daphne Caruana Galizia did not die in vain.”

One positive move forward, explains Muscat, is that the independent newsrooms, and the journalists working within them, have learnt how to collaborate better and how to take part in cross-border investigations related to corruption that involves Malta. Working with the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation https://www.daphne.foundation/en/  They recently undertook a thorough investigation of leaked information into passport sales of Malta. “This again is a sign of one of the positive elements that emerged in terms of us being able to come together in stories,” she says.

But such investigations are hard, as The Shift’s journalists are deliberately excluded from media events and restricted from doing basic reporting. This is something that infuriates Muscat. She says: “We are not invited to government press events. In Parliament, the whip of the party in government stands up and asks the speaker of the house to censor what we are saying, to force us to remove content. So every possible obstacle has been placed in our path to make you know our work much harder. It is ridiculous. It is relentless.”

One of their first investigations, only three weeks after Caruana Galizia’s killing, was into the hate campaign that led to her dehumanisation and social isolation. They discovered that secret Facebook groups were administered and moderated by people in government whose members included MPs and government officials. “We retraced that over six months and presented the evidence to the public inquiry which came to the conclusion that political propaganda managed directly from the office of the prime minister was responsible for creating the climate in which she could be assassinated.”

Often associated with anonymous trolls and nameless, faceless haters, Muscat says this kind of abuse gives an insight into how technology is being used to silence dissent. The Shift’s exposé of this state-sponsored hate campaign is a chilling reminder of the power of political propaganda and the direct cause and effect between online hate speech and state-sanctioned violence. “These findings are very important not only for Malta but to the international community for us to better understand how such campaigns result in threats, intimidation, harassment that journalists face and what can be done to address this.”

A ground-breaking result for reporters and whistle-blowers everywhere, this revelation is testament to what independent journalism is all about, says Muscat. Without political affiliation or partisan loyalty, The Shift may be free to pursue whichever line of enquiry it wishes, but at a cost – the safety of the journalists – and so Muscat established a protocol to protect the staff. “One of the first things we did was to set up a security protocol, so we assessed the situation, we set up rapid response procedures.”

Their security policy includes excluding journalists from social media when online attacks happen to prevent them from being psychologically worn down and traumatised. They have also set up reporting procedures with the police to make sure that every journalist whether working online or in person, has a way to report and respond to attacks and harassment. The public inquiry recommended that a police unit was set up specifically to protect journalists and maintain the right to freedom of expression.

Such difficulties faced by the independent media is compounded in a country where misogyny is the norm. “Malta is undeniably a misogynistic country,” says Muscat. ”Certain phrases and certain intended insults that would be shocking anywhere else in the world are still tolerated here.” This kind of vitriol was something to which Caruana Galizia was no stranger. On the receiving end of brutal insults and imagery, she was regularly demonised as a “bitch”, “the witch of Bidnija” (the village where she lived and where she as killed) and the “queen of bile and hatred”. ‘This particular vocabulary reserved for women is still commonplace in a country where an archaic attitude, patriarchal values and traditional gender roles still endure, says Muscat.

For female reporters especially, the threat of intimidation and harassment is ever-present. Not only from members of the public or online trolls but from senior government figures. “After Daphne died, Occupy Justice Women was created. And they had this action outside of the prime minister’s office, and one of the government consultants came out and called everybody a whore – for daring to criticise their king.”

In a country where 60 per cent of people get their news from Facebook, much of Muscat’s journalism is aimed at challenging fake news. It does this by building an alternative community online and reaching out to its audience through events and weekly newsletters. “You don’t only have the challenge of reaching your readers, you have the challenge of then countering misinformation. It is extremely important for us to reach our audience, that we are able to reach someone with this platform. I think the best solution is always for readers to go to the source, to identify those newsrooms, ones they trust and to go directly to the source”.

For more information about The Shift’s vital work visit its website https://theshiftnews.com/

Photograph : Reporters Without Borders