Murdered Maltese journalist back in the news
Daphne Caruana Galizia, 53, was a leading anti-corruption journalist from Malta, killed in a car bombing near her home in 2017. Her family say she was “assassinated” because of her work uncovering alleged corruption in the Maltese government.
Caruana Galizia first earned her reputation as an activist in 1982 when she landed in jail at the age of 18, for protesting against what she felt was a corrupt government. She spent her early career writing for Malta’s largest publications, including the Sunday Times of Malta and the Malta Independent, for whom she wrote regular columns until her untimely death.
Even after her death, her personal blog Running Commentary still regularly attracts more views than the combined circulation of all of Malta’s newspapers, according to the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation, established by Caruana Galizia’s sons and husband.
In 2016, Caruana Galizia broke a story about a string of secret Panama-based companies tied to Maltese politicians on her blog, including allegations of corruption against Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s wife. The couple have denied the allegations.
Her work laid the groundwork for the publication first of the Paradise Papers and later the Panama Papers by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Caruana Galizia’s work made her many powerful enemies while she was alive, and she was sued for libel on multiple occasions. The many threats she received have contributed to the difficulty in determining just who was responsible for her death.
What happened to her?
Caruana Galizia died on October 16, 2017, when her rented Peugeot 108 was detonated by a remote control device on a country lane near her home in Bidnija, Malta. Her son Matthew Caruana Galizia, told CNN that she was driving a rental car at the time, out of fear that someone might target her car in an attempt to kill her.
What was left of Caruana Galizia’s body was found by her son Matthew, who was living at home at the time. When he heard the blast, he ran barefoot to the nearby field where what was left of her car was scattered. He described the grisly scene in a Facebook post after her death. “I looked down and there were my mother’s body parts all around me,” he wrote. He has vowed to continue his mother’s work.
Caruana Galizia had faced numerous death threats, and had been under police protection for years. But in 2010, her police protection was cut in half, which she described on her blog as the government’s retaliation for her criticism. Her police protection was removed entirely in 2013 when the Labour party — a frequent target of her investigations — returned to power.
Her family have petitioned the government of Prime Minister Muscat to open a public inquiry into whether the removal of police protection ultimately led to her death. Such an investigation has not yet been launched. The government attributed wider cuts in police protection to budget decreases, but it has not explained why it removed Caruana Galizia’s protection. CNN has contacted the government on whether it will open an inquiry into the circumstances.
Has anyone faced justice for her murder?
In December 2017, 10 people were arrested in connection with setting the bomb that killed Caruana Galizia. The detentions at the time were largely seen as an answer to growing pressure from the European Union on Muscat’s government to show good faith in investigating her murder.
Seven of the detained people were eventually let go, but brothers Alfred and George Degiorgio along with Vincent Muscat, no relation to the Prime Minister, have been formally charged with her murder. All three suspects have pleaded not guilty. No trial date has been set.
On November 25, Malta President George Vella pardoned a taxi driver named Melvin Theuma, who had been accused of working as an intermediary between the three men charged with her murder and others who ordered the killing. The pardon was requested by Prime Minister Muscat in exchange for Theuma’s testimony. The pardon is essentially Malta’s version of immunity from prosecution, and means that Theuma cannot be tried for any alleged involvement in Caruana Galizia’s murder. CNN has been unable to reach Theuma’s lawyer for comment.
Matthew Carbone, the Head of Government Communications in Malta, told CNN the country’s Attorney General and the Police Commissioner both recommended the pardon, which is subject to a number of conditions and can be reversed.
Maltese businessman Yorgen Fenech has also been arrested several times and questioned in the investigation. Fenech owned the company 17 Black, according to Reuters, which Caruana Galizia had accused of shady dealings on multiple occasions.
Fenech was most recently arrested on his yacht, while heading for international waters, according to a spokesman for Maltese Armed Forces. He was then detained and held without charge for 48 hours, under Maltese law which requires suspects to be charged within that time frame or set free. He has since been released on police bail. Fenech’s lawyer Gianluca Caruana Curran declined to comment on this story to CNN.
Where does the blame lie?
Many, including Caruana Galizia’s own family, have criticized the official investigation into her death, and claim that the investigation could lead directly to Prime Minister Muscat — if he were not also leading the investigation.
Muscat was a frequent target of Caruana Galizia’s investigations into corruption, especially due to his wife’s alleged involvement in the Panama companies. Caruana Galizia’s family have said that they believe the Prime Minister wanted her dead.
Muscat has denied all allegations of wrongdoing.
In a statement emailed to CNN, Carbone said the Prime Minister “has always taken the necessary decisions for the country to keep moving forward.”
“At the same time all resources were given to our independent institutions to leave no stone unturned and get to the truth behind the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia,” the statement said, adding that Muscat “will refrain from commenting on issues directly related to the investigation.”
He has previously said that justice would be served in Caruana Galizia’s murder investigation. Earlier this week, he told reporters in Malta that he thanks his cabinet members for their service but could not comment on the ongoing investigation.
Maltese opposition leader Adrian Delia told CNN that the murder had shaken the country’s politics, and placed the blame squarely on the prime minister and his inner circle. “The Prime Minister and ministers were at the very least fully aware of what was going…. They are at the very least guilty of allowing a situation to precipitate to a stage where a journalist was assassinated to shut her up for good.”
“One has to put this investigation within a context, that context being a series of corruption scandals that were outed by Daphne Caruana Galizia, the press and the opposition,” Delia told CNN.
He claims that the prime minister initially sought to shield members of his inner circle whom she investigated, and that his government’s failure to provide sufficient protection to Caruana Galizia ultimately led to her death. “The Prime Minister, despite the clear evidence in hand, kept defending his inner circle of people. These criminals developed a sense of impunity, and it is this sense of impunity that led to her murder just over two years ago,” he said.
The European Union’s special rapporteur to Malta Pieter Omtzigt, told CNN that he believes Muscat faces a conflict of interest in leading the investigation into Caruana Galizia’s death. “Checks and balances on the Prime Minister are totally insufficient to solve this situation,” he told CNN. “The PM appoints the police commissioner, the judges, the magistrates, all the supervisors, the ministers, the attorney general.”
“[Muscat] can also recommend a presidential pardon. He has a huge conflict of interest,” he added.
Maltese police would not confirm to CNN who else is under investigation. A spokeswoman said that “there are a few people we are investigating. We won’t give any information on their identity.”
Why is the story back in the news?
After Theuma received a presidential pardon, two prominent members of Muscat’s Cabinet resigned this week. A third announced he was “suspending himself.”
Keith Schembri, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, and Konrad Mizzi, Malta’s tourism minister both left their posts, Muscat has announced. Both had been named in the aftermath of the Panama Papers investigations brought on by Caruana Galizia, according to an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists who have continued to follow the many leads she began.
Omtzigt told CNN Tuesday that Schembri had been arrested. “Keith Schembri, who until yesterday was the chief of staff of the Prime Minister has been arrested and his house searched.” Schembri was released without charge on Thursday, according to local media. CNN has been unable to reach Schembri’s lawyer for comment.
According to a statement on the Tourism Ministry’s website, Mizzi resigned “in the light of the political situation in the country.” His spokesperson told CNN: “Dr Mizzi is not in any way connected to the investigation you mention (about Caruana Galizia’s murder) and has no information related thereto. The political situation is such that the country will at this moment in time benefit from avoiding unnecessary distractions fueled by politically motivated speculation.”
And Chris Cardona, Malta’s Economy minister, suspended himself this week, “pending the investigations and proceedings going on right now” according to a ministry statement. Cardona released a statement on Twitter saying in part, he is “cooperating fully with the police and remains ready to cooperate further so as to clarify any issues or questions that might crop up as part of the ongoing investigation.”
When asked about the resignations and suspension of the three Labour members, Malta’s Labour Party told CNN in a statement that “investigations are ongoing and the information that we have at this stage is from news reports which still need to be corroborated when persons are arraigned in court.”
The party said it “categorically condemns the brutal murder of Ms. Daphne Caruana Galizia and is satisfied that the government provided all the necessary resources to the country’s institutions and authorities to seek justice in this case.”
What has the international reaction been?
International condemnation of the lack of accountability in Caruana Galizia’s murder has been widespread, from Pope Francis — who took the unusual move to send condolences for the death of a private citizen — to rights groups that have kept her investigative work alive. She has received over a dozen posthumous awards for excellence of journalism. Grants in her name have been established at a number of journalism schools.
After her death, a group of 45 journalists representing 18 news organizations from 15 countries launched “The Daphne Project” to continue her investigative work, including unraveling alleged connections between the Pilatus Bank in Malta, Azerbaijani politicians, and top Maltese politicians to a wide range of corrupt entities including Italian organized crime and oil smugglers from Libya. The bank was officially shut down in 2018 over corruption charges.
The EU has demanded answers from Malta since the murder, with little success. Europe’s justice commission wrote soon after the murder that it “expects an independent and thorough investigation to uncover who is really responsible for Daphne’s murder, we want the full truth. There is no place in the EU for the murder of journalists.”
In 2018, Věra Jourová, the EU’s commissioner for justice, traveled to Malta to meet with top officials on the investigation. In a previous visit, MEPs Ana Gomes, Sven Giegold and David Casa said: “The investigation on the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia is stalling. People we spoke to suspect that the plan may be to ensure the blame rests with the three suspected bombers and to eventually let them go free, after 20 months of detention.”
The same statement said recent shifts in Maltese personnel involved with the case could be interpreted “as a way to delay and stall in the investigation.”
On Thursday, the EU confirmed that it would send a mission to Malta to investigate the state of the rule of law in the country, referencing Caruana Galizia’s case.
Of particular note to many foreign news organizations is the fact that flowers and candles and other tributes are regularly removed from the makeshift site dedicated to Caruana Galizia in the capital of Valletta on the Great Siege Square, even as Malta’s political landscape is roiled by the investigation’s fallout.
As Matthew Caruana Galizia tweeted Wednesday, “Even after his chief of staff was arrested on suspicion of murder, Muscat still ordering the memorial to my mum to be cleared.” Muscat has repeatedly denied any involvement in the murder, its cover-up or any seeming lack of thorough investigation.