Panama Papers journalist’s death by car bombing illuminates Malta’s corruption

Daphne Caruana Galizia was a brave and fearless journalist

At around 3pm on Monday afternoon, Malta’s most controversial journalist and investigative blogger was killed by a car bomb in Bidnija, near Mosta.

Daphne Caruana Galizia was a scathing critic of the Maltese political establishment. Her wildly popular blog Running Commentary led uncompromising probes into the corruption facing the state. Caruana Galizia’s tireless work attracted over 400,000 readers ‘on a good day’ – Malta’s population is only 450,000 people. Just over half an hour before her shocking death, she wrote in her last blog post: ‘There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate.’

Since Europe has hit many political roadblocks over the past few years, the situation in Malta may have been somewhat overlooked. We take a look at the formidable journalist’s life and a government allegedly built upon corruption at every level.

Who was Daphne Caruana Galizia and why was she killed?

Caruana Galizia was described by POLITICO as a ‘one-woman WikiLeaks’. Her blog posts embroiled leading politicians and underground figures – kingmakers of Malta’s system – in a number of scandals. Caruana Galizia began her career as a columnist with the Sunday Times of Malta in 1987. She later became associate editor of The Malta Independent, and continued to write columns for the publication after stepping down from that role.

Caruana Galizia then went maverick and took aim at a wide range of targets, from banks facilitating money laundering to links between the online gaming industry and the Mafia, publishing material on her website Running Commentary. The mum-of-two and wife took no prisoners. She wasn’t afraid about who she offended and who she angered and was subject to numerous libel cases throughout her career. Caruana Galizia’s blog posts didn’t mince their words either; they referred to elite members of the political fabric as ‘crooks’ and unashamedly called out figureheads for alleged corruption.

Her work over the past two years shook Malta to its core. Caruana Galizia’s revelations from the Panama Papers, a cache of 11.5million documents leaked from the internal database of large offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca, even implicated prime minister Joseph Muscat and and two of his closest aides. She connected offshore companies linked to the three men with the sale of Maltese passports and payments from the government of Azerbaijan. The findings were the reason Muscat triggered an early general election four months ago, in which himself and his Labour Party were re-elected.

What is the political situation that led to her death?

Corruption leaks into every facet of politics. Each EU member state takes its turn to be the ‘purveyor of corruption’ within the bloc, and the past two years haven’t been easy for Muscat and his ruling party. Distrust of political figures was brought to a head after Caruana Galizia’s bombshell Panama report in April last year. The papers named Muscat’s chief of staff Keith Schembri and former Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi. According to the leaks, the two men instructed lawyers to set up offshore trusts in New Zealand and companies in Panama. They also tried to set up accounts with eight different banks in tax havens across the world — but failed. Although Muscat stood by his aides, he called the snap general election.

But Muscat’s political headache didn’t subside after his win. Allegations that the prime minister’s wife Michelle is the beneficial owner of a third Panamanian company, and the recipient of a $1 million payment from the daughter of Azerbaijan’s president, came to light. Muscat upholds both of their innocence and has promised to quit if any material implicating the pair emerges. The opposition Nationalist Party also accuses him of undermining the rule of law and the independence of institutions such as the police, and tarnishing the island’s reputation by selling EU citizenship to Russian oligarchs.

Muscat did condemn Caruana Galizia’s killing nonetheless. In a television statement, he called the car bombing a ‘barbaric attack on press freedom’, and that he ‘will not rest until I see justice done in this case.’ Muscat added: ‘Everyone knows Caruana Galizia was a harsh critic of mine, both politically and personally, but nobody can justify this barbaric act in any way.’

Violent repression of press freedom

Many commentators are calling Caruana Galizia’s death a political murder. Other killings on the island have been carried out by gangs and members of the criminal underbelly. But Caruana Galizia’s position as a relentless warrior against corruption has led to speculation that she was killed as a way of silencing strong political critique. The European Commission said it was disgusted by the murder, praising the journalist for her her ‘dedication to the truth’ and investigative work: It said: ‘The right of a journalist to investigate, ask uncomfortable questions and report is at the heart of our values and needs to be guaranteed at all times.’

However, the safety of journalists opposed to the establishment isn’t always guaranteed. In Russia for example, a number of Putin critics and journalists have died in mysterious circumstances since his tenure in the Kremlin. German MEP Sven Giegold, a leading figure in the parliament’s Panama Papers inquiry, alluded to Russian treatment of dissident voices in his statement about Caruana Galizia’s death. ‘It is too early to know the cause of the explosion but we expect to see a thorough investigation,’ Giegold said, ‘Such incidents bring to mind Putin’s Russia, not the European Union.’ An investigation into Caruana Galizia’s murder will be carried out by Maltese authorities and the FBI, but tributes to the tireless journalists confirm that her work will never be taken in vain.

Today's PlayGround Videonews: