Malta murder reveals frustrations beneath postcard image

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People in Malta have protested to demand justice after the killing of blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia

The shocking assassination of an influential anti-corruption blogger has brought to a head the public frustration at Malta's stagnating institutions, bubbling away for years beneath the Mediterranean holiday island image.

Academics, lawyers, friends of Daphne Caruana Galizia and mourners alike tell a common tale of failing confidence in the tiny country's politicians, police, business culture and justice system.

Monday's fatal car bomb attack has left the country asking itself: if the most prominent critic of Malta's institutions has been silenced in such a brutal way, who now will speak up?

"Who is responsible? Frankly, we all are. The whole country," said Andrew Borg Cardona, a prominent veteran lawyer who is in practice with Caruana Galizia's husband.

"We've become not lawless, but the government has given the impression that you can virtually do what you like around here and get away with it," he told AFP.

"The big fish do exactly as they please: build the buildings they want to build, launder the money they want to launder."

The attack has thrown a spotlight on Malta's recent economic boom, fuelled by online gambling, offshore companies and a passports-for-investment scheme.

A 4.6-percent growth rate, near-full employment and a budget in surplus helped comfortably return Labour Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to power in a June snap election -- a vote he called after Caruana Galizia made detailed allegations of corruption against his inner circle, some based on the Panama Papers data leak.

- Maltese at crossroads -

"To the outside, Malta looks like a holiday island. To people who live here, it's something we've come to live with," Matthew Demarco, 30, a designer, said of the country's practices.

He was among mourners who gathered at the growing floral tributes laid to the slain journalist in the heart of the capital Valletta.

Professor Andrew Azzopardi, dean of the Faculty for Social Wellbeing at the University of Malta, said the killing had brought matters to a head and the country now faced a turning point.

"The moral panic it has created is phenomenal. People are uncomfortable," the academic told AFP.

"We are at a crossroads in terms of our political dialogue. It will be an opportunity or we could be messing things up further.

"When you are targeting Daphne, it isn't just targeting her; it is much more than that."

He described the situation as a terrible wake-up call.

"The political class have let down the people by not engaging with the issues at hand. They have allowed this sense of statelessness to creep in. There is a sense that the state is not protecting us," he said.

"The institutions are under threat. All of this is creating a sense of internal instability."

The expert said the situation was exacerbated by the close-knit nature of Maltese society, a community of 430,000 people.

"It could be that our politicians and institutions are too close to the people. We all know each other very well. They might create a sense of familiarity which might be breeding contempt," he said.

- Public trust 'gone, completely' -

Luke Frendo, 31, a lawyer and a friend of Caruana Galizia's son Matthew, said a situation where it took 24 hours to suspend a police sergeant who, on Twitter, reacted to the death by saying he was "feeling happy" and that everyone gets what they deserve, "spoke volumes".

He urged Maltese citizens to take the responsibility upon themselves to fill the void left by Caruana Galizia's murder.

"In the past, everyone could rely entirely on her, and that made it very easy for all of us, because everyone knew that Daphne would say and do whatever needed to be said and done," he told AFP.

"It made us complacent. Now we need to step up."

Borg Cardona said that like many southern European countries, faith in the police and the institutions had never been enormous, but in recent years, "public trust has gone, completely".

He added that in years past, "something of this magnitude would shake governments and create a movement in society. I'm not entirely sure that will happen this time."