(Economist) The death of a crusading journalist rocks Malta

(Economist) Daphne Caruana Galizia wrote fearlessly about corruption.

TWO or three hundred people gathered outside the courthouse in Valletta on October 17th to protest at the assassination the previous day of Daphne Caruana Galizia, Malta’s most intrepid and controversial journalist. It was a modest turnout for what Adrian Delia, leader of the opposition Nationalist Party (PN), called “the darkest moment in the country’s political history”. After a speech by a friend of the dead woman, the crowd sang the national anthem and dispersed, some weeping.

The last words Ms Caruana Galizia wrote on the blog where she excoriated Malta’s elite for its corruption, negligence and incompetence were: “There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate.” After posting them, she drove away from her home in the village of Bidnija and was killed by an explosion so powerful it threw her rented car 80 metres into a field. Her son Matthew ran to the scene, where the car horn was still blaring. “I looked down and there were my mother’s body parts all around me,” he wrote on Facebook.

Malta, the EU’s smallest member, is fast becoming one of its most troubled. The Valletta courthouse is surrounded by signs of breakneck economic growth: the swanky facades of luxury boutiques and hotels; building sites bustling with immigrant construction workers, unencumbered by safety harnesses or helmets. For the past three years, under Joseph Muscat’s Maltese Labour Party (PL) government, GDP has soared at an annual average rate of almost 7%, against a background of unremitting corruption allegations.

Most emanated from Ms Caruana Galizia’s blog, Running Commentary, launched in 2008 when she felt her twice-weekly columns in a local daily did not give her the space or freedom she needed. With the moral authority of the once-mighty Maltese Catholic Church fast evaporating, says Manuel Delia, a fellow-blogger and former PN government official, Ms Caruana Galizia acquired an influence few journalists achieve: “Daphne was the last ethical voice left. She was the only person speaking about right and wrong.”

That made her uniquely vulnerable. Even before starting her blog, her home had been the target of an arson attack. But except at election time, it had not been under police guard since 2010.

The leaking in 2016 of the so-called Panama Papers, more than 11m documents taken from a Panamanian law firm, opened new horizons for Ms Caruana Galizia. Her son Matthew is a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which has been mining the documents for stories.

Last year Running Commentary revealed that Mr Muscat’s chief of staff and one of his ministers had Panama-registered companies and trusts in New Zealand. Ms Caruana Galizia claimed, and they denied, that the offshore vehicles received kickbacks from Russians who had bought Maltese passports. In April she wrote that Mr Muscat’s wife was the beneficial owner of a company that allegedly received $1m from the daughter of the president of Azerbaijan, with which Malta has commercial ties. The government called it a lie. Recently, Ms Caruana Galizia turned her fire on the right, accusing the PN’s new leader, Adrian Delia, of links to a London-based prostitution racket, which he denies.

By the time of her death, Ms Caruana Galizia faced 42 pending libel suits and a protracted list of enemies. Her foes may have included Italian mobsters who are suspected of infiltrating Malta’s booming online gaming industry and its narcotics trade. She died in the fifth car-bombing on Malta in two years. None of the others, ascribed to warring drug traffickers, has led to arrests.

Acknowledging he was the dead blogger’s “favourite target”, Mr Muscat told parliament he had asked for help from America’s FBI and would not leave “a stone unturned” in the search for her assassins. But whatever the result of the inquiry, Ms Caruana Galizia’s murder will probably achieve its aim. In an editorial the Malta Independent, her former employer, wrote that “for many people, looking up her blog was the first thing they did each day, and the last thing too. Now there is just emptiness. A silence that speaks volumes.”