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Malta’s game of musical chairs
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Malta’s game of musical chairs

Tuesday 12 October 2021

It is four years since the murder of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. We still await full justice – and a chance for her country to break from its corrupt past


“The fight against corruption and the decimation of the rule of law must continue.”

Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed four months after she wrote those words.

This Saturday (16 October) will mark the fourth anniversary of her death at the age of 53. The Maltese journalist was killed by a car bomb as she drove away from the home she shared with her husband Peter and where they had raised their three sons. 

Malta is still reeling from the horror. 

The prime minister Joseph Muscat was forced to resign in disgrace, along with several of his ministers, after it became clear that his government had been deeply involved in the corruption and criminality Caruana Galizia had been exposing. 

Several of her alleged killers have been arrested, but none have yet been convicted, bar two of the murderers who gave evidence against their co-conspirators. 

A public inquiry into her assassination concluded earlier this year that the Maltese state was responsible for fostering a culture of impunity that had made the murder possible. 

The court testimony in all the separate cases against the killers so far apprehended makes it clear beyond doubt that Caruana Galizia was killed because of her work, and specifically because of what she was about to expose about an energy deal – involving former ministers and high-ranking government officials – that is mired in allegations of corruption. 

Indeed, Caruana Galizia’s work was so powerful that the former prime minister, Joseph Muscat, told the panel of judges leading the public inquiry into her assassination that “she was the only opposition”. 

Muscat stepped down as prime minister in January 2020 following both allegations of government corruption and evidence emerging in court, as well as through investigations by the press, that he had protected people linked to the murder.

His chief of staff, Keith Schembri, and his “star minister”, Konrad Mizzi, were also forced to resign. Muscat insists he has paid the “political price”, but civil society groups are demanding accountability. 

The same individuals are still on trial, and their cases are no closer to a resolution. After a lengthy compilation-of-evidence stage, the accused mastermind – the former casino boss Yorgen Fenech who had close connections to the former prime minister – was indicted this year, with prosecutors seeking a life sentence for complicity in murder. No date has been set for the trial and Fenech remains in custody in Corradino Correctional Facility. 

It has also emerged that Joseph Muscat, while still prime minister, opened a private WhatsApp group between himself, Yorgen Fenech and Keith Schembri one day after the arrest and charge of three men in connection with the assassination.

The case against the actual hitmen George and Alfred Degiorgio continues. The two have filed over 100 pre-trial pleas since the compilation of evidence against them began, in what looks like endless legal wrangling to delay proceedings.

Their accomplice, Vince Muscat (no relation to Joseph), pled guilty in a plea bargain deal with prosecutors that will see him serve a 15-year sentence in exchange for providing information about the journalist’s murder and about the unrelated killing of a lawyer.

The men who allegedly supplied the bomb that killed Caruana Galizia, Robert Agius and Jamie Vella, were arrested and charged soon after. Testimony given in the compilation of evidence stage of each of these trials – and in the public inquiry into the journalist’s death – has repeatedly implicated high-ranking politicians in both the murder and in systematic attempts to cover up the crime, but no individual from the political sphere has yet been charged in court despite a pattern of arrests and questioning.

The complete failure of law enforcement to investigate the corruption Caruana Galizia wrote about has also been a regular feature of the trials. Deputy Police Commissioner Silvio Valletta – the husband of a minister – was among others leaking crucial information about the investigation to suspects. While disgraced former police commissioner Lawrence Cutajar is reportedly being investigated for holding secret meetings with an associate of middleman-turned-state’s-witness Melvin Theuma prior to his arrest, raising concerns of “possible collusion” between the former police chief and one of the suspects. The men mentioned in this paragraph have denied the allegations against them. 

The only police official to be charged is Ray Aquilina, a retired former superintendent from the Economic Crimes Unit, also suspected of leaking information on the murder investigation.

Four years after the car bomb that ended Caruana Galizia’s life, the only real changes that have been implemented by the government have come as a result of intense pressure from abroad, and even these were minimal and riddled with deliberate loopholes.

The international community has responded by imposing clear sanctions to further isolate the country from the global financial system. Malta was placed on the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) “grey list” of countries at high risk of money laundering and terrorist financing, a decision the current prime minister, Robert Abela, has called “unjust” and “not deserved”.

Then the UK placed Malta on its list of high-risk countries for money laundering and terrorist financing, increasing both the risk and administrative burden of dealing with companies and individuals in the troubled country.

The 2021 Basel Anti-Money Laundering Index has also ranked Malta as the highest-risk country in the entire European Union for money laundering and terrorist financing.

And the European Commission’s 2021 Rule of Law assessment found that, while reforms have been introduced on paper, actual results remain to be seen – especially when it comes to prosecuting corruption.

The Venice Commission, Moneyval, and the FATF have provided clear guidelines for bringing Malta back into good standing with the international financial community, but the government has so far proven unwilling to make the necessary prosecutions, or to put an end to a culture of corruption and impunity.

Throughout all this, Daphne Caruana Galizia’s family has sustained a campaign for truth and justice that has resulted in positive outcomes for press freedom that are of global significance. 

The public inquiry into the circumstances that led to her death concluded that the state failed to adequately protect her from the threats she faced and therefore bears responsibility for her death. 

The result was a 400+-page report published last July that cited wide-reaching failures in every part of the administration, state, government, cabinet, and law enforcement that culminated in a collapse in the rule of law and a culture of total impunity.

The inquiry board concluded that Caruana Galizia was the victim of an orchestrated dehumanisation campaign that was successful, they said, precisely “because it was centrally organised by the Prime Minister’s Office, and that eventually led to the complete isolation of a journalist.”

Caruana Galizia herself wrote about this in the same year she was killed: “The Labour Party, in all its different shapes and forms and under its different leaders, has hounded me irascibly since I was in my 20s. Yes, for a quarter of a century…. this is a standard, textbook fascist method that powerful people use for the public destruction of their critics.”

The board concluded that Caruana Galizia’s isolation and dehumanisation, coupled with the inaction of law enforcement and other authorities, helped create an atmosphere of impunity in which those who wished to harm her felt they could do so with the assurance that they would be protected.

The increased hostility Caruana Galizia faced is mentioned frequently in the report, which charts in meticulous detail the many instances of harassment she experienced throughout her career.

The Board’s conclusions highlight the role of the government whip Glenn Bedingfield in generating hostility towards Caruana Galizia, noting that he ran a blog dedicated to attacking her while working at the prime minister’s communications office.

Bedingfield defended his actions by saying that his blog was “an equal and opposite reaction” to Caruana Galizia’s writing. The board concluded there was nothing “equal” between the writings of the public official and the journalist, because Bedingfield had a media house, the power of a governing political party, and near-infinite resources at his disposal.

Her son, Andrew Caruana Galizia, said the Board’s conclusions offered “groundbreaking confirmation of the role political propaganda played in her death”.

The Board’s pronouncement is important because for too long, those in power played down, dismissed, or defended this kind of behaviour under the guise of freedom of speech.

It is also important because it will become part of an extensive body of international research documenting the state-sponsored harassment of journalists.

And it is important because not only does it remind us that the assassination did not occur in a vacuum, but also, most crucially, as her son Paul (a journalist at Tortoise) has pointed out, “it restores her humanity”.

Caruana Galizia was a hero, a lone voice crying out against the corruption and criminality of the Maltese government, demonised by the party in power and abandoned by the opposition and most of her colleagues in the Maltese media.

As a result, she was isolated, attacked and then murdered.

Until full justice is meted out to all those involved, nothing will change, no matter how many ministers are shuffled in and out of office in the deadly game of political musical chairs seen so far.

Caroline Muscat is the founder and managing editor of The Shift news portal in Malta 


Listen

My mother’s murder

An investigation by Paul Caruana Galizia into the life and killing of his mother, the Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.