This is the seventh in a series of posts celebrating the women fighting for positive change in our world. Today I’m talking to Alessandra Dee Crespo.
Alessandra is 48 and read for a Licentiate in Sacred Theology at the University of Malta. She has worked in the Church in Malta for nearly thirty years. Following 13 years at Caritas, she was asked to serve at the Regional Tribunal of Second Instance, which is the Ecclesiastical Appellate Court that serves Malta, Gozo, Gibraltar and Libya. Alessandra was appointed its Chancellor by the Maltese Episcopal Conference in 2007. Her work in the Church has inspired her to be a responsible citizen of this country and the world.
1) How would you describe the political scene in Malta to an outsider and, delving as briefly as you can into Maltese political history, could you maybe attempt to account for Daphne’s relationship with the Labour Party?
To an outsider, our political scene appears to have all the trappings of a vibrant Western democracy. We are members of the European Union, we hold General elections like clockwork, people go out to vote in droves at every election, we have an Opposition Party, people are allowed to protest, we have several newspapers, radio and television stations, people are very politically active on social media.
But when you look deeper you come to realise that all the above is just a front. It is basically Turkey in the Mediterranean disguised as a Western democracy. Our government mocks the European Union, using it as a means for personal advancement while deriding European democratic credentials.
Yes, people do vote in record numbers in Malta but so do people in N. Korea, Azerbaijan…and other ‘democracies’ that favour strong-arm politicians over those who truly understand that ultimately politics is another way of serving one’s country.
In Malta, one’s vote is used as a bartering tool, as leverage to obtain favours, in permits, jobs, etc. There is no viable Opposition Party which is a tragedy since it was the Opposition Party that mobilised the people in the ’70s and ’80s to dream, to strive for a better Malta, to demand better. Today it is indistinguishable from the party in government.
On paper protests are allowed, however the government demolishes the memorial to Daphne Caruana Galizia at least twice daily. The Opposition, meanwhile, pounces on any dissent related to their leader.
As for the Fourth Estate, I divide it into two groups: “journalists” on the government or party payroll or in the pocket of the government or parties (so they are hardly journalists but reporters and at worse, propagandists). In the other group, a small number of independent journalists who risk everything for our right to know.
Political discourse on social media is an extension of our political parties. Any dissent is quashed by a very well-oiled troll army. There is no distinction between the trolls despatched by the government and the opposition. They are both intent on beating dissenters into submission with ad hominems and taunting anyone campaigning for good governance as ‘Daphne people’ or the ‘Daphne Legacy’.
From Daphne’s first-hand accounts of her early run-ins with the Labour Party, she was a thorn in their side from a very young age. She was thrown into a cell in her teenage years for daring to protest the Labour government of the day. If you read her account of this ordeal, you can tell that her resolve to oppose tyranny from whichever direction it comes, was forged in that bleak cell.
Daphne was a lover of beauty. And I think that was the driving force that kept her going, that kept her hoping that Malta would be restored. She saw the degradation of the political, environmental, and moral landscape as an erosion of this beauty and fought with all her might so that we will see it too and do something about it.
To answer the question in a nutshell: In the 80s, Daphne fought, alongside others, for our rights, for Malta to obtain and enjoy Western democratic credentials. She died defending them, alone.
2) With the PACE ruling insisting on a public inquiry into whether the Maltese government could have prevented Daphne’s death, with a criminal inquiry being launched against Finance Minister Edward Scicluna, and with ministers being forced to testify as to where they got insider Egrant information, do you feel a sense of hope or renewed optimism?
As a civil society we feel rather isolated because the Opposition Party, which in the past was very vocal and on the forefront of the fight for the rule of law, is a toothless tiger.
In the Nationalist Party before September 2017 people had a rallying point. In it we found a bulwark for good governance, the rule of law, and even though the government carried on regardless with its roadmap of corruption, we rallied behind the Nationalist Party, safe in the knowledge that this party is the complete opposite of the party in power.
When Adrian Delia came on the scene, Daphne turned her attention to investigating this new candidate who came from nowhere and his supporters turned against her for carrying out due diligence on him and uncovering his murky financial dealings. When Adrian Delia called Daphne a ‘bicca blogger’ – a derogatory term that reduced her journalism to mere gossip and speculation – he legitimised the attack on the free press, and the Rubicon was crossed in our country.
So enjoying the support of EU and international press freedom organisations gives us comfort and reassurance that we are not alone in this fight for justice for Daphne and for the soul of our country. It is Civil society, journalists like Manuel Delia and Caroline Muscat of The Shift News, and a handful of people in the PN who honour their commitments and conscience despite being hounded by leaders and trolls, that have brought about the recent demand for a public inquiry into Daphne’s murder.
3) What has your experience of calling for justice for Daphne been like? Have you ever felt intimidated or scared?
It is a promise I made to Daphne during her funeral Mass. I am typing this question while sitting in a café opposite the Mosta Church where her funeral was held on the 3 November 2017.
When I watched her coffin being carried inside the church accompanied by thunderous applause I felt a great shame wash over me. Shame that a country could only appreciate a patriot when she is no longer living and shame that the only support I gave her was by commenting under her posts on her website and the occasional message or email of encouragement. I felt shame for my fellow countrymen and women who thought it fit to go out carcading in the streets celebrating her murder, as if their favourite team won a game.
So I made a promise to Daphne to get out of my comfort zone and join the fight for justice. I repeated this promise after Mass when I went to lay a bouquet on the murder site in Bidnija and prayed Psalm 130 with a friend.
We are both in Occupy Justice now. In the evening I made my promise public by writing a blog post for Manuel Delia’s website. I wanted witnesses.
Some people in the Church are irritated by my very vocal participation in the cause for justice and good governance. But they seem to forget that the Gospel is also a hymn to justice and Church teaching is very clear on this: Christians who shirk their duties in the temporal world by retreating and finding solace only in internal expression of their faith, deserve nothing but condemnation.
Politics are a demanding manner — but not the only one — of living the Christian commitment to the service of others, as the Church teaches us. Aquinas warns that if you can live amid injustice without anger, and if I might dare to add, anger that is not harnessed into meaningful action, you are immoral as well as unjust.
My promise to Daphne is the wind beneath my wings, the strength to never give up, never give in, no matter what this struggle throws at us – time constraints, insults, friends cutting me off, getting picked on by the government and the Opposition’s stooges and trolls. We are a tight knit group of women who look out for each other and enjoy the support of many like-minded people.
Daphne’s family is the other reason, no less important, why I am in this fight. Her parents, husband, sons, sisters, in-laws, nieces, have sacrificed so much to this country. It’s our turn to give something back to them, to let them know that they are not alone. I wish Daphne knew this towards the end of her life, but this is the collective guilt we must live with. We can only atone for it by not letting her memory and sacrifice be forgotten.
I do not feel special for doing my duty towards my country. I expect no one to thank me, or worse, admire me, for doing my duty. People invariably do, maybe because that they are genuinely grateful for what we are doing, but sometimes I sense that they are also relieved that someone, other than themselves, is carrying the can on their behalf.
Was I ever scared? Certainly, especially when I was summoned to give an account of a speech I made at the foot of the Memorial, but it was fleeting and it only hardened my resolve to keep calm and carry on in this fight.
Besides, I have only pity and contempt for these people who are so ready to do their masters’ bidding – when they say jump, they ask “how high?” – instead of doing the right thing by the country. Mockery and a sense of humour is what keeps me going. They deserve nothing less, conceding them more is letting them win. And that is something I never contemplate.
But when I do feel scared, it is especially for people who are really in the eye of the storm, like Manuel Delia and Caroline Muscat of The Shift News. I am sure we all feel that frisson of fear at some point or another, mostly not for ourselves, but for our loved ones, but the alternative of doing nothing is abhorrent to us.
4) How has your opinion changed of Malta, if at all?
I am 48 years old so I caught the tail end of the 1980s. I remember them vividly, how half the country could just take to the streets to protest and to fight for good governance without prodding and cajoling. As young people we were politically aware then of what was going on around us, we were angry with the injustice of it all and wanted to set the world to rights.
Our elders set the example, they gave us a strong civic duty and since then I have always made sure that I give back, in some way or another, whether in my choice of employment or by being politically active. Nowadays I see that this community spirit is quite lacking in the young, they are less politically engaged and some view activism as a waste of time or as something that could work against them when they come to enter the workforce – although it was very heartening to see the young being so energised during the latest protest on the protection of trees.
It is a very good sign that our dogged pursuit of the government to demand justice for Daphne is catching on in other areas.
I do not want to sound like some eminence grise who feels entitled to impart advice to the young because even adults my age and older, (who should know better having lived under the Labour government’s tyranny) have either given up, or decided to swim with the tide.
So, I do not blame the young entirely because our generation that grew up in the 80s got comfortable as well, lulled into a false sense of security with the mirage of a booming economy, and miserable coins jangling in our pockets, while failing to see the millions the crooks are raking in at our expense. In my opinion, one doesn’t simply grow a social conscience, it must be taught, by example.
My heart sings and I get a renewed jolt of energy when I see the people rise up in the face of a new scandal but it is usually short lived and people just return to form.
The government wants nothing more than to tire us out, beat us into submission with scandal after scandal, with spin and gaslighting, but we must never give in.
As a wise person told us once “Gutta cavat lapidem” : a water drop hollows a stone, by persistent attrition over time. I believe this wholeheartedly.
5) Could you talk us through how and why Occupy Justice came to be a
predominantly female grouping?
I believe the founders of Occupy Justice felt that since both the government and the Opposition cannot be relied upon to react adequately to the horrific and unprecedented assassination of a journalist, someone else must step up to the plate.
So they did, on the very day Daphne was killed, and others followed, including myself. I went to the sit-in and “joined” there and then. My baptism of fire was on the 16th November 2017, when, together with other members, we took a bay leaf plant to Castille with the message: “He who does not want to know is a fool. He who does not do anything is a coward. He who knows and does nothing is an accomplice.”
Daphne was a woman, and I hazard to guess that if she were a man, she would not have been hounded so viciously and ultimately silenced. This is a deeply misogynist society that still thinks that a woman’s place is to prop up the men in her life, be they their father, husband, or boyfriend. This can also be seen, by extension, in the blind adulation of politicians, especially the leaders of the two parties.
So it makes sense that we are a group of women fighting for justice for another woman. In our case, it is the men in our lives who prop us up, be they our husbands, boyfriends, fathers, friends and the wider group of men who support us in silence and who attend our events over and over.
Women have a rough ride in our society. We are expected to be silent and listen in rapture to anything a man has to tell us. We were called whores by a government’s consultant for pitching our tents in Castille Square in the days following Daphne’s assassination, we are singled out on social media with choice misogynist insults.
Sadly, though, the most vicious insults do not come from men, but from fellow women. It is as if we are undermining their idea of what womanhood should be, to be servile and submissive, they truly believe that we are betraying our kind by usurping the place of the men and rendering them useless.
Ironically though, the three strongest civil society movements this country has ever seen, are led by women – Occupy Justice, the clean-up drives led by Cami Applegren, and only recently, the For Our Trees group led by Sasha Vella.
Maybe people should realize that the three movements are closely linked by one common denominator – the politics that killed Daphne and that is also killing our environment are one and the same – for a corrupt system does not care whether a person or a tree is felled, as long as it achieves what it wants.
People keep telling us that it is a waste of time, dangerous even, to go against such a behemoth as this apparent joint collaboration between the government and the Opposition to trample on anything that is good and decent, but if our example to challenge the status quo ultimately leads to more people become engaged with the world around them, then we are happy.
6) How do you maintain your energy, stamina and hope when the
situation is so desperate?
I keep only one thing in mind – that if people do nothing, then the situation will be even more desperate. Individually we are strong women who are not easily fazed, so imagine how much stronger we are as a group. We ardently believe in our cause and we are galvanized when we see the extent of the support we enjoy both locally and abroad. We are a thorn in the side of both the government and the Opposition, so we must be doing something right!
Daphne has done it all before us, she was the trailblazer. We look to her, to what she has gone through and refuse to fold. We refuse to allow the government and the Opposition to obliterate her memory and her legacy. And when we are called ‘The Daphne People’ so be it. We are exceedingly flattered. I cannot think of a better moniker – for she was everything that the crooks running the country into the ground are not – a true patriot, a woman who put our right to know above personal interest over and over, especially when the situation was getting desperate and more sinister, and a brave woman who loved her country until the end of her life.
I refuse to be cowed into submission. This is my home, this is my country. I demand better. I am an optimistic person. The pursuit of happiness is one of my characteristics and ever since I joined this cause I keep a quote by Pericles in my diary and take a quick peek at it when the energy, stamina and hope start to flag: ‘Happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous’.
All throughout our history, our ancestors seemed to live by this maxim when faced with tyranny. It is our turn now. And I am all in.
7) if you had one message to deliver to successive generations of
Maltese, what would it be?
- Educate yourself, read widely. Books mostly.
- Set a good example to others. If you are a parent, an educator, a person in authority, feel responsible to instil in the young that right and wrong is not a popularity contest.
- Politics is not a football game.
- If a party no longer represents your values, walk away.
- Country over party, always.
- Don’t succumb to authority just because it is authority.
- Know your rights. Be on the right side of history.
These are not my words. These are Daphne’s. This is her legacy to us. We are keeping it alive.