“How are we going to get the real news?” – Malta is left reeling following the brutal murder of a journalist

Alight with colourful candles, the so-called Love Monument in the Maltese seaside resort of St Julian’s almost looked romantic. The candles, however, were remnants of a vigil held to honour a prominent Maltese journalist who died a few hours before. On 16 October 2017, Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed by a powerful explosion as she drove from her home in Bidnija, a small town in the north-west of the island. While she made a number of powerful enemies with her tireless crusade against high-level corruption and organised crime – in naming her one of the 28 people shaping Europe’s future in 2017, Politico described her as a “one-woman WikiLeaks” – very little is known about who had the capacity and, indeed the audacity, to carry out such a meticulously planned and barbaric act.

“How are we going to get the real news?” one attendee, Phil Darmanin, lamented after the vigil. “She wrote what many of us wanted to say and didn’t have the guts to,” said Rita Mizzi, who was also in attendance. Both women told Equal Times that opening Caruana Galizia’s popular Running Commentary blog was a part of their daily routine.

A graduate in archaeology, Caruana Galizia was drawn to a different kind of digging in her twenties. Her signature style – unapologetic and unyielding – was developed during her time as a reporter for the Sunday Times of Malta in the late 1980s and later as a columnist for the Malta Independent in the early 1990s. In 2008, she set up her own blog, which soon surpassed the readership of established Maltese media houses.

People turned to Caruana Galizia for sharp commentary on everything from fuel smuggling rings to the links between the online gambling industry and the mafia, as well as other instances of the deep corruption consuming the former British colony.

But in a society divided by partisan politics, not everyone was convinced that Caruana Galizia was reporting fairly. A 16-year-old who asked to go by the name of Charlotte (not her real name) told Equal Times that some of her neighbours described Caruana Galizia’s death as “a happy day”, and that anyone siding with the slain journalist deserved to share her fate. The 53-year-old journalist not only made enemies with politicians, gangsters and prominent business people, but also with some sections of the working-class who found her writing contemptuous and classist. “I am fed up of living in a society dominated by savagely aspirational hamalli [a derisory term for working-class people that are seen as tacky and boorish],” she wrote in a blog post about outfits worn by Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his wife Michelle.

Meanwhile, Caruana Galizia’s high-level critics repeatedly tried to silence her through the courts. Defamation is a criminal offence in Malta and at the time of her death, Caruana Galizia’s blog was subject to 42 pending libel suits. The 2017 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders places Malta 47th out of the 180 countries ranked globally. The criminalisation of libel is listed as one of the main concerns and the report even cites the time when Caruana Galizia’s bank accounts were frozen “at the Economy Minister’s behest” as an example of the kind of political pressure that Maltese journalists come under.

“Maltese journalists are currently striving to abolish the criminal libel, to reduce the fines when a journalist losses a libel case, to abide by a code of ethics for journalists, to set up an insurance policy for journalists, and to increase the fines for those who are found guilty of injuring or killing journalists on work related issues,” says Norma Saliba, chairperson of the Institute of Maltese Journalists (IGM), the main trade union and media ethics watchdog. Despite its own run-ins with Caruana Galizia, the IGM has expressed its shock and horror over her murder and is calling for a thorough investigation into her death. The trade union has also filed a court application to ensure the protection of her sources, whose data is at risk of being retrieved from her records.

“The situation is desperate”

Caruana Galizia’s harshest criticism was reserved for Malta’s political elites, particularly those linked to the ruling, centre-left Labour Party. In her final blog – titled “That crook Schembri was in court today, pleading that he is not a crook”and posted just hours before she died – Caruana Galizia wrote about the libel case brought by the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Keith Schembri against the former leader of the opposition Nationalist Party Simon Busuttil. “There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate,” Caruana Galizia wrote of Schembri’s claim that Busuttil defamed him during a 2016 anti-corruption rally.

In 2016, the then Energy and Health Minister Konrad Mizzi (currently the Minster for Tourism) and Schembri were all implicated in the Panama Papers, a leak of 11.5 million documents from the offshore law firm Mossack Fonseca. On this basis, Caruana Galizia and her son Matthew, also an investigative journalist, alleged links between the prime minister and his wife to the sale of Maltese passports and payments from the government of Azerbaijan. While the investigation is ongoing, Mizzi and Schembri have kept their jobs.

In the face of the Panama Papers scandal, the Labour Party decided to test its mandate by calling a snap election in June 2017. It won the election by a sizeable margin, resting on historical allegiances, bountiful promises and the country’s strong economic performance. Enviably low unemployment, growing tax revenues, including from online gambling giants, and the much-criticised citizenship-for-investment scheme (fast-track access to citizenship for those who invest €650,000 or more) has allowed the government to maintain a generous welfare state without high taxes.

Apart from economy, however, voters were also attracted by a number of human rights breakthroughs. The incumbent government has overseen the transformation of this staunchly Catholic nation into the most LGBTI-friendly country in Europe, the end of automatic detention of asylum seekers and the decriminalisation of blasphemy.

As a staunch human rights defender, Caruana Galizia was worried that these achievements would override people’s critical analysis of high-level corruption in the country.

Caruana Galizia was also a critic of the centre-right Nationalist Party – a party she once supported and consulted while in government through her PR company, Proximus – particularly after it elected Adrian Delia as its leader in September 2017. The journalist uncovered his association with members of the underworld, offshore bank account and alleged dealings with a brothel owner in London. Delia denied holding offshore accounts, but admitted to business dealings with the aforementioned client.

The Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported messages in a pro-Delia WhatsApp group inciting the murder of Caruana Galizia. But according to her family, physical threats were a regular occurrence. In 1996, Caruana Galizia’s front door was set on fire and her dog was killed; in 2006, NGOs and outspoken public personalities who came out in defence of African migrant workers were targeted in a series of arson attacks.

Few expected the threats to go much further, but as a result of them, the woman known as Malta’s only investigative journalist lived a reclusive life. Despite numerous promises to join her crusade against corruption, Malta’s press corps recently became the subject of international scrutiny after newspapers retracted articles on her allegations against the Maltese private bank Pilatus when threatened with legal action. A fellow blogger, Manuel Delia, who also spoke at a mass rally in Valletta on 22 October to demand justice for Caruana Galizia’s death, poignantly asserted: “The problem for our democracy is not that Daphne Caruana Galizia does that. The problem is she is the only one doing it.”