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The bomb that killed the truth

It is five years since the Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered. Her son Matthew talks about his family’s continuing fight against corruption

Protesters hold photos of killed journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia outside the office of the Maltese prime minister in 2019 (Photo by STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images)

At around 3pm on October 16 2017, Daphne Caruana Galizia left her house near Bidnija in the Maltese countryside to go to the bank. Minutes later her son Matthew heard a massive explosion.

A bomb had lifted the car into a field, where it was burning. “I ran to the car and started to try to open the driver’s door with a stick. But then I saw there were body parts lying around, and no one in the car. Then I knew it was over.”

Caruana Galizia, 53 when she died, had been Malta’s top investigative journalist. Fellow professionals all over the world admired her. The Maltese government and the island’s ultra-rich loathed her.

That day, 31-year-old Matthew’s life dissolved. He was a software engineer with a degree in journalism obtained through the Erasmus programme from London’s City University, and worked for international organisations. He had been in a four-year relationship with a young woman. His job and his relationship both ended in the wake of the murder.

“When we read about things it is all sanitised. Seeing an arm, a leg – you don’t know what it does to a person. I had a career which I enjoyed. I think I would have been married by now. I was a very private person. It was only my mother’s murder that brought me into the public eye. I cannot bear to see my mother having sacrificed her life for nothing.” He is now the full-time director of the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation.

He is also, with his father and his two brothers, dealing with 46 defamation cases outstanding against her, most of them intended to harass and intimidate her. These sorts of cases are known as SLAPPS – strategic lawsuits against public participation.

Under Maltese law, when you die, your heirs inherit defamation cases. “So even before we could bury what was left of my mother’s body, my father and my two brothers and I were in court defending ourselves against cases filed against her by the then economy minister Chris Cardona,” Matthew told me.
“Cardona’s lawyer was there in court, attacking my mother. Prime minister Joseph Muscat’s driver and security people were there. They had no reason to be there, they had come just to intimidate us. That was the day we decided we had to do something.”

Caruana Galizia’s accusers had managed to get some of her assets frozen, which was why she had to go to the bank at exactly the same time every week – a useful piece of knowledge for anyone wishing to plant a bomb on her car.

In the five years since her death, the 46 cases have been reduced to nine. But Muscat, Malta’s prime minister from 2013 to 2020 and the main target of many of her investigations, is continuing to pursue the family over an allegation related to the so-called Panama Papers.

The Panama Papers, published in 2016 by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, revealed the secret owners of bank accounts and companies in 21 outposts in the offshore system. They linked Muscat’s minister for health and energy, Konrad Mizzi, and the prime minister’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, to shell companies in Panama.

Caruana Galizia alleged that, in addition, Muscat’s wife held a company in Panama, which Muscat says is a politically motivated lie. “My mother was murdered before she could stand this up,” says Matthew. “There are references in her work to documents I have not seen. The burden of proof is on my family. It is vindictive of Muscat to proceed with this case knowing the main witness is dead.”

The murder did not come out of the blue. Matthew’s memory of childhood is that there were regular threats, by phone and letter. “I thought growing up that this was normal for a journalist. I could see how my mother dealt with it. She stood up to bullies. I was proud of her.” The last words she wrote on her blog, just before she got into her car, were: “There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate.”

Matthew says that the corruption his mother was killed for exposing is deep and systemic in Malta now. The Panama Papers highlight just one part of it.
The Maltese economy and its 516,000 people are largely dependent on financial services, online gaming and tourism. The small island of 122 square miles is littered with huge construction projects to feed tourism, which are squeezing the few remaining green spaces.

“Before the Labour government came to power, there was a culture of tolerance for low-level corruption,” says Matthew. But he says it went to another level after Muscat led Labour to victory in 2013. “Our political class has been conflicted for years. But in the last 10 years it has gone into wholesale state capture. No one is ever convicted for corruption, the worst that happens is they are moved sideways. This has created a culture of impunity.”

Privatisation of public services frequently offers rich pickings to the unscrupulous, and the autocratic ruler of Azerbaijan, who was close to Muscat, was deeply involved with privatisation of the island’s electricity and health service. One of Caruana Galizia’s stories on the privatisation began in her usual uncompromising way:

“A due diligence report leaked to this website reveals corruption and trading in influence in the government’s Gozo General hospital and St Luke’s hospital privatisation deal with Vitals Global Healthcare. Vitals Global is a shell company whose shareholding is concealed by companies registered in the British Virgin Islands. We don’t know who the real owner is, and the due diligence investigation was unable to uncover the true ownership.”

She was suspicious of Muscat’s relationship with former UK prime minister Tony Blair, who delivered an endorsement speech on video for Muscat during the 2017 general election. One of Blair’s clients was Azerbaijan.
“If he accepted a paid gig to speak in Azerbaijan and make no mention of human-rights violations, nobody should be surprised that he accepted a gig for the Malta Labour Party without mentioning corruption and other forms of gross abuse,” she wrote.

A member of the EU since 2004, the island has come into conflict with Brussels over its “golden passports” scheme aimed at wealthy investors, under which you can acquire Maltese citizenship by investing a million euros in the country. The EU pressed Malta over its unwillingness to exclude Russians from the scheme, which it has now belatedly done.

A few days after the murder, Matthew wrote on Facebook: “My mother was assassinated because she stood between the rule of law and those who sought to violate it, like many strong journalists. But she was also targeted because she was the only person doing so. This is what happens when the institutions of the state are incapacitated: the last person left standing is often a journalist. Which makes her the first person left dead.”

Two brothers, George and Alfred Degiorgio, have admitted to planting the bomb and have been jailed for 40 years. The businessman believed to have ordered and paid for the killing, Yorgen Fenech, is in prison awaiting trial. Fenech is a friend of Muscat, has links with Azerbaijan, and his business interests are typically Maltese: casinos and hotels on the island.

But Matthew does not feel he is even close to seeing justice. He wonders why there is no date for Fenech to be brought before a court, and who the businessman might implicate if he was. At the very least, Matthew holds politicians responsible for “creating the atmosphere that caused my mother’s death”.

Caruana Galizia worked first for the Sunday Times of Malta, then for the Malta Independent, as well as for public relations consultancies, and she was the founder and editor of two successful lifestyle magazines, Taste and Flair, which were her main income and are still published by the foundation, now merged into one magazine, Taste&Flair.

But she wanted the freedom to chase stories wherever they led her. Like all the best investigative journalists, her greatest pleasure was finding out things the rich and powerful would rather we didn’t know, and telling us. In March 2008 she began her blog Running Commentary. “She started it at first as a hobby,” says Matthew. “It made her happy.”

It quickly became one of the most popular websites in Malta. But it never paid the bills – Taste and Flair did that. Investigative journalism seldom pays well. Too few people want to read it, and it is very labour intensive.

Matthew says threats were almost a daily occurrence. The front door of her house was set on fire. The family dog had its throat slit and was laid across her doorstep.

The foundation, whose first funding came from Caruana Galizia’s estate, has her data, and campaigns and lobbies for the democratic and open government she championed: an end to SLAPPs, ensuring the impartiality of public service broadcasters, exposing conflicts of interest in government.
Muscat was forced to stand down as prime minister in 2020, tainted by both the murder and his record of tolerating corruption. The same year, his chief of staff, Keith Schembri, was arrested for money-laundering and corruption linked to the sale of Maltese citizenship. The next year, an inquiry found that Muscat’s cabinet was “collectively responsible” for Caruana Galizia’s death, having failed to grant her protection and having contributed to a “culture of impunity”.

“I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved – we have been able to make a huge impact on a shoestring,” says Matthew. “We advocated at the Council of Europe for a special inquiry into Malta. That happened and they found a high level of corruption. We have campaigned for the truth about my mother’s murder. There is a draft EU anti-SLAPP directive, so out of this shocking crime we have been able to do this very big thing.”

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