PARIS—In October 2017, the Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, known for her scoops that alleged corruption at the highest levels of the government and beyond, was killed by a car bomb. Her assassination remains unsolved.
A report released this week by the Council of Europe, the Continent’s watchdog for human rights and the rule of law, goes a long way toward explaining why that might be. It is a damning document that paints a picture of state capture and concludes that “the rule of law in Malta is seriously undermined by the extreme weakness of its system of checks and balances.”
If the report had been about any other country in western Europe, heads would roll, governments would collapse, and the international community might consider the country a pariah. Instead, the report was about Malta, the smallest member of the European Union. Why should anyone care?
Why? For one, because a journalist was murdered in western Europe; investigations continue at a “glacial pace,” the report says, and the lack of progress is likely because of government foot-dragging that the report spells out in painful detail. The small fish are on trial and plead innocent while the bigger ones have not been caught.
For another, Malta is one of the weakest links in Europe. Its banks, with questionable vetting to ensure against money laundering, have become a back door into the European banking system. Its “golden passport” program lets wealthy individuals invest in Malta in exchange for citizenship—and visa-free travel and work across the bloc. Malta is a grim example of how a European country has fallen dramatically short on the rule of law. It is also a prime example of the failure of EU institutions to do much about that.
Caruana Galizia’s murder is still unsolved. The report notes “a series of serious concerns over the investigations into the murder,” including “the failure of the police to interrogate economy minister Chris Cardona, despite claims that he had had contacts with the suspects.” (Cardona has denied wrongdoing.) In April 2018, Caruana Galizia’s family gave her laptops to the German police for safekeeping, fearing that they would not be safe in Malta. Maltese authorities have not requested access to them, the report says.
Maltese authorities have ordered the removal of makeshift memorials to the journalist. “One is left with the impression that the government would prefer that Ms. Caruana Galizia be erased from the public memory,” the report reads.
It also spells out the inordinate powers enjoyed by the office of the prime minister, including appointing the country’s attorney general and chief of police. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is one of the few center-left leaders in a Europe of rising far-right populists. But at home, he was a frequent target of Caruana Galizia’s reporting, and on his watch, Malta has done little to solve her killing.
She had reported allegations that Muscat’s wife and two of his advisers were tied to accounts in a Maltese bank whose main client was the first family of Azerbaijan. All have denied any wrongdoing.
“The Office of the Prime Minister has taken over responsibility for various areas of activity that present particular risks of money laundering, including on-line gaming, investment migration (‘golden passports’) and regulation of financial services, including cryptocurrencies,” the report reads. The fact that the prime minister also appoints senior civil servants, it adds, rather dryly, is “problematic from the perspective of checks and balances. Large numbers of ‘persons of trust’ are appointed to public posts through non-transparent procedures that provide for exceptions to merit-based appointments, which may be illegal.”
The report points to significant structural flaws in Malta’s anti-money-laundering agencies, parliamentary government ombudsman, Freedom of Information Act, and Permanent Commission Against Corruption. It says there is “compelling evidence” that two government ministers and aides are involved in “serious cases of abuse of office, corruption and money laundering. They have refused to take political responsibility by resigning. They continue to benefit from the protection of Prime Minister Muscat.”
After Caruana Galizia reported on the bank accounts allegedly held by Muscat’s wife, the prime minister called a snap election in June 2017, which he won. But it takes more than elections to make a democracy function. The Council of Europe report makes it clear that Malta has a very long way to go.