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Murder exposes Malta’s dark side

The killing of an investigative journalist reveals another side to Malta, says BRAD BLITZ. But her investigations spread beyond the island’s shores – and so do implications of her murder

The final words written on her blog by Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia this week were heartbreakingly prophetic. ‘There are crooks everywhere you look now,’ she wrote. ‘The situation is desperate’. Just a short while later, the 53-year-old was dead – killed when a car bomb blew up her Peugeot 108, throwing the debris into a nearby field.

In her career, and certainly in her death, Caruana Galizia exposed another side to Malta than its image as a seemingly serene Mediterranean holiday destination. In her journalism, she depicted an island at risk of being turned into a mafia state by malign, criminal influences, where politics, business and the criminal justice system were all tainted by corruption. Her death, then, creates many suspects.

Her investigations, though, spread beyond Malta’s shores – as do the implications of her murder. Caruana Galizia, an outspoken critic of the country’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, had been following a global inquiry which linked a string of countries in a web that included the Kremlin at the very centre.

Specifically, she had been investigating leads following the naming of two Maltese aides whose identities were disclosed in the leaked Panama Papers.

The news that the current Minister for Tourism Konrad Mizzi and the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, Keith Schembri had offshore companies set up by Panamanian firm Mossack Fonseca gave rise to a series of scandals and led to widespread calls for their resignation last summer.

The pair denied any wrongdoing: Mizzi said the accounts had been set up to receive income from a property in London, while Schembri implied that the offshore entities were related to his business activities prior to politics. Both men kept their jobs.

But even more troubling for Muscat was the revelation that the his wife and children were listed as beneficiaries of trusts linked to shell companies created by Mossack Fonseca.

Caruana Galizia also alleged that the offshore companies were associated with the sale of Maltese passports and payments from the government of Azerbaijan. She claimed that Muscat’s wife had received $1 million through an offshore fund from the daughter of the president of Azerbaijan, Leyla Aliyeva.

Such claims prompted calls for Muscat’s resignation too, and saw him authorise a magisterial inquiry into the charges that money laundering laws had been violated.

Then, during the height of the Maltese presidency of the European Union – by all accounts a great success – Muscat held a snap election to quell public discontent.

Although he won that election and saw his challenger and arch-critic, Simon Busuttil, deposed as leader of the Nationalist Party, his government remained dogged by rumours of corruption.

Caruana Galizia and her son Matthew Caruana Galizia, who works with the Pulitzer Prize-winning International Consortium of Journalists, were among Muscat’s most public accusers.

Both mother and son were subject to libel actions and censure as a result of their reporting. Before her death, Caruana Galizia was the subject of more than a dozen libel cases with Muscat and the new opposition leader, Adrian Delia filing multiple suits against her.

For his part, Matthew Caruana Galizia saw his Facebook blocked over posts which contained allegations against Muscat, Schembri and Mizzi. In addition to legal action and criticism, Caruana Galizia reported that she was the victim of death threats just two weeks ago.

There is nothing to suggest any of this is linked to her murder, but the episode underlines the febrile nature of Maltese politics and journalism, as well as the fearless way Caruana Galizia tackled those in authority.

While Malta has been rocked by car bombs in the past, most of those have been linked to organised crime and not seen as politically-motivated – until now.

The killing of Caruana Galizia has shaken the country and many now fearing that press freedom is at risk in Malta. The current mood betrays the external image of a country which, under Muscat, saw itself refreshed as a more open, tolerant, and business-friendly European state. And to his credit, there have been significant positive developments in the country under his leadership.

There are several additional angles to this story which may further threaten that image, and have implications for the EU and the UK. Firstly, the European Parliament initiated an inquiry into the Panama Papers which may further expose complex money laundering practices and may reveal more about the elites in Malta and elsewhere who are benefiting from overseas tax havens at the expense of the European public.

Second, just as Caruana Galizia sought to peel back the layers of intrigue which allowed individuals in Europe to establish multiple shell companies through Mossack Fonseca, the EU and OECD have sought to criminalise money laundering through binding legislation that provides a level of accountability and transparency which Brexit may weaken. Third, and most intriguing, there is an empowering transnational aspect to this tragedy which needs to be explored.

In April 2017, the UK government passed the Criminal Finances Act (CFA) which amended the 2002 Proceeds of Crime Act. The CFA includes a so-called ‘Magnitsky’ amendment – named after the ill-fated Russian lawyer and auditor who had reported large-scale theft from the Russian state only to be arrested and tortured to death in prison in 2009.

This creates new powers to freeze the UK assets of those suspected of abusing human rights. That means the thugs who killed Caruana Galizia and those who ordered the killing – whoever they were – could be pursued in UK courts. But there’s a catch. Unfortunately, even though the CFA entered into force last month, some sections are not yet enforceable and the provisions which allow the UK to pursue human rights abusers will require a statutory instrument to make that happen.

Meanwhile, for Malta, a country which sought to position itself as a gateway to Europe, the killing of a high-profile journalist and the murky connections her work uncovered, will endanger the image of a confident European state which both Muscat and the opposition have worked hard to promote.

Brad K Blitz is a professor of international politics at Middlesex University and senior fellow at the Global Migration Centre at the Graduate Institute in Geneva

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