A tribute to Daphne Caruana Galizia
Matthew Mirabelli / AFP / Getty

Who Murdered Malta's Most Famous Journalist?

The assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia raises questions about the tiny island nation that has become a back door to Europe.

STRASBOURG—Daphne Caruana Galizia was less than a mile from home when her Peugeot 108 exploded and burst into flames last October, killing her instantly and sending shrapnel into a nearby field. She was 53 and the most famous investigative journalist in Malta. In that tiny country, her scoops consistently made life uncomfortable for the powerful, whether in banks or the prime minister’s office. Investigators later found that a sophisticated device had been planted on the car and remotely detonated. In December, after turning to the FBI and Dutch forensic experts for help, Maltese authorities arrested 10 people and eventually charged three Maltese nationals with carrying out the attack. But the bigger question—the one that has reverberated far beyond Malta—remains unanswered: Who ordered the killing?

The journalist had faced death threats and libel suits for years. “Our mother’s death warrant could have been signed two years ago,” Matthew Caruana Galizia, one of Daphne’s three sons, and himself a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, said here on a recent afternoon. He was in Strasbourg to speak before lawmakers at the Council of Europe, the continent’s watchdog for human rights and the rule of law. “It has been like watching her assassination unfold in slow motion,” he added.

Long before she began investigating the Maltese leads unearthed in the Panama Papers, Caruana Galizia’s one-woman blog, “Running Commentary,” drove the news cycle in the EU’s smallest member state. She had reported on money laundering, the Italian mafia, and a controversial program begun in 2014 that allows wealthy foreigners to purchase Maltese passports; that program has effectively turned the country into a backdoor to Europe, especially for wealthy Russians. Damning scoops tied the prime minister’s wife, an aide, and one of his ministers to suspicious financial transactions through a Maltese bank to a Panamanian shell company; another scoop alleged that the aide had personally profited from the sale of Maltese passports. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat called a snap election last summer following the report about his wife—and won. (Muscat has publicly said that he would resign if the allegations were proven true, and he and his associates deny all wrongdoing.)

Caruana Galizia was harassed for years. During an election campaign, the governing party had put her face on wordless billboards, along with opposition politicians, marking her as a political enemy. The family home had been set on fire twice. Pet dogs had been found killed. “This didn’t come out of the blue. Her assassination wasn’t some kind of aberration,” Andrew Caruana Galizia, another of her sons and a Maltese diplomat, said at the Council of Europe. “The fact that the people she had implicated in her investigations got away with complete impunity and any kind of institutional response was completely crushed meant that her assassination was not only conceivable, it actually became possible,” he said. “The people she reported on faced no other threat except from her.”

Hers was the fifth death by car bomb in Malta in the past few years, and none of the other cases have been solved. It may take time to solve her murder, but the question is whether Malta’s institutions have the political will to try. The accused, who are charged with detonating the bomb from afar, are most likely foot soldiers in a much bigger game. Malta’s ability to solve Caruana Galizia’s murder is implicitly linked to its ability to investigate the allegations she had been reporting on. For years, she had probed corruption and foot-dragging in the same institutions now charged with investigating her death.

The case points to deeper structural flaws in the rule of law in Malta. The country may be a blip on the map, an outcropping of rock between Sicily and Libya, with a mere 400,000 inhabitants. But it is a member of the European Union, and its passport sales to wealthy individuals, its sometimes cavalier awarding of banking licenses and its monitoring of money laundering—to say nothing of its liberal granting of visas from its consulate in Algeria, which allow recipients visa-free travel inside Europe’s Schengen area—suggest that Malta has become Europe’s soft underbelly. The murder of a journalist in Europe, at a time when democratic institutions face severe tests worldwide, risk making Malta the weak point that could threaten the entire bloc.

In announcing the arrests in December, Muscat called the murder “a barbaric act” and said Malta “will leave no stone unturned to get this case solved.” He added, “I am committed to do so more than ever.” But more than three months after the journalist’s death, little has come to light. Her family and some European lawmakers are so concerned about this that, at the hearing last month where the journalist’s sons testified, MPs on the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly took an unprecedented step: calling for an independent rapporteur to monitor the investigation. This person would have a mandate to interview officials in Malta and beyond, to hold hearings in Strasbourg and Paris, and to publish a report. The recommendations would be non-binding, but would bring international attention to the case.

It’s the first time the Council of Europe has ever suggested appointing a rapporteur for an investigation inside an EU member state, and a sign of how concerned it is about rule of law in Malta. The motion calling for the appointment, which is expected to be approved, says the international community has a responsibility to ensure an investigation “without political interference,” and it called for “an examination of the full context of the assassination, including institutional failures and the systematic targeting of Caruana Galizia for her work.”

“This is obviously a very serious case of a journalist being silenced, and it’s right within the European Union,” Pieter Omtzigt, a member of the Dutch Parliament and a co-author of the Council of Europe motion, told me. “Usually we think things are going all right-ish in the EU and problematic states are outside, like Turkey or Russia.”

The two other times the Council of Europe has appointed a special rapporteur were both in Russia: for the investigation into the 2015 murder of Boris Nemtsov, the Russian opposition leader, and into the 2009 death in pre-trial detention of Sergei Magnitsky, an auditor who had discovered what he said was fraud by Russian officials.

This form of attention toward Malta is not the first sign of Europe’s concern about the country. Last month, members of the European Parliament released a damning report in which they cited “serious concerns” about the country’s legal system and separation of powers, as well as its “weak implementation of anti-money laundering legislation.” Those weaknesses could cause problems far beyond little Malta.

Given Malta’s EU membership, money in Maltese banks can flow freely throughout the European banking system. And if Malta is lax on implementing anti-money laundering norms, the whole continent could be affected. In November, Frans Timmermans, the executive vice president of the European Commission, said he had “no general concerns” about Malta’s application of anti-money laundering procedures. But that may change. Last weekend The Guardian reported that Europe’s banking watchdog, the European Banking Authority, had opened a “preliminary inquiry” into the Maltese bank that Caruana Galizia had reported held accounts for Russian clients, as well as accounts tied to the Maltese prime minister’s wife and two advisers. (Last month, a former European Commissioner from Malta also confirmed he had held an account there.)

Meanwhile, a former shadow justice minister of Malta has said most of the foreign buyers of Maltese passports are Russian. If any Russians with Maltese passports happen to pop up on U.S. sanctions lists, as Maltese media has suggested some have, they will benefit from the full rights and protections of the EU. An EU passport wouldn’t mean an individual could evade U.S. sanctions, but it would would make visa-free travel to the U.S. possible. And it raises the question of whether Malta is doing the U.S. (or the EU) any favors by selling citizenship to people who might wind up on a sanctions list. Iranians aren’t eligible to buy Maltese passports because the U.S. would withdraw visa-free access to all Maltese citizens.

The European parliamentary report is enough to inspire despair. It invites doubt about whether Maltese authorities have the will and resources to investigate both Caruana Galizia’s death and the allegations of corruption she had been reporting. Far beyond raising questions about the current Maltese government, she had essentially painted a picture of a system that sells shadowy figures access to Europe, weakening its institutions. The members of the European Parliament asked Maltese police why they had never opened an investigation into the allegations, raised by Caruana Galizia, that Muscat, his chief of staff, and his tourism minister made use of Panamanian shell companies, and they didn’t receive a conclusive answer.

The report also shows the challenges Europe faces in keeping its own member states in line. When I talked to her in Brussels last month, Sophie In’t’veld, a member of the European Parliament (MEP) from the Netherlands who sits on a committee that wrote the report, conceded Europe was still finding its way when it came to ensuring that member states were upholding the rule of law, and that Poland was currently the biggest test case. “We’re inventing the mechanisms as we go along,” she told me.

Ana Gomes, an MEP from Portugal and one of the authors of the report, said the Malta trip had been dispiriting. “Who controls whom?” Gomes wondered out loud to me, regarding the Maltese government and the foreign investors who were buying Maltese passports and moving money to and through Malta. “Is the prime minister controlling them, or are they controlling the prime minister?” I pointed out that the Maltese government had won the snap elections with a secure majority. “It’s not through elections that you can clear corruption,” she said.

Maltese officials reject this. “The picture you have painted is not the real picture of Malta,” Malta’s justice minister, Owen Bonnici, said of the report during the parliamentary hearing. As to the specific allegations raised by Caruana Galizia’s reporting, Kurt Farrugia, a spokesman for the Maltese government, wrote in an email that the prime minister maintains that “if any proof or truth is found in the allegations against him or his wife he would resign immediately.”

He added that the government was “giving all the resources to Police” to solve Caruana Galizia’s murder, and that it had assistance from Europol and the FBI. “In the matter of two months, the Police apprehended three suspects which are being accused of killing Daphne Caruana Galizia. There is enough proof on the suspects to prosecute them and they are awaiting trial. Further investigations to get the bottom of the murder are still ongoing and we remain fully committed to bring to justice the persons behind this heinous murder.”

The broader investigation, though, faces some hurdles. The first magistrate assigned to investigate the journalist’s murder recused herself, at the family’s request, as she had once brought a criminal defamation case against Caruana Galizia. The journalist had also investigated the officer currently leading the investigation, and he sits on the board of a government body that Caruana Galizia had alleged was suppressing reports of money-laundering by government officials.

At the end of the hearing in Strasbourg, a Maltese member Parliament from the governing Labor Party, Etienne Grech, had asked a question to Caruana Galizia’s sons: “Did your mother ever encounter any difficulties with freedom of expression during the time that she wrote?” he asked, adding that Caruana Galizia had reported on the opposition leader, too. Matthew Caruana Galizia took the microphone. “Your question is totally outrageous,” he said. “She was killed for what she wrote for God’s sake. How can you possibly say that she was free to express herself?” The air in the room grew tense. Grech said that “a tragedy had occurred.”

“It wasn’t a tragedy,” Matthew said. “It’s a crime.”