Daphne Caruana Galizia, a prominent investigative journalist and blogger who reported on government corruption and the Panama Papers, was killed in Malta in October 2017. Police have made several arrests including an alleged middleman who, according to reports, offered to name those who ordered the killing in exchange for a pardon.
In December 2019, the Maltese Prime Minister announced he would resign in January over the political crisis sparked after the journalist’s murder, The Guardian reported. CPJ and other rights organizations have repeatedly called on Maltese authorities to ensure the investigation into the murder is independent and free from political interference.
Caruana Galizia was killed on October 16, 2017, when the car that she was driving exploded near her house in Bidnija, in northern Malta, media reported. The blogger told police two weeks prior to her death that she had received death threats, according to Malta’s national broadcaster TVM. The journalist’s blog, Running Commentary, which included investigative reports and commentary on politicians, was one of the most widely read websites in Malta, according to reports.
A forensic expert was cited in local media as saying that preliminary investigations suggested that explosives were not placed inside the car, and that a remote control could have been used to set the bomb off. Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat announced that the FBI had agreed to assist local police in the investigation, according to Reuters.
Muscat condemned the attack, which he described as an "attack on press freedom." The prime minister added in a statement, "Everyone knows Ms. Caruana Galizia was a harsh critic of mine, both politically and personally but nobody can justify this barbaric act in any way."
Caruana Galizia’s reports about Muscat’s alleged connection to the Panama Papers scandal forced him to call early elections in June 2017, after harsh criticism from members of the European Parliament. The journalist alleged that Muscat and his wife were behind an offshore company that received over $1 million in payments from a Dubai company allegedly owned by Leyla Aliyeva, daughter of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev. Muscat denied the allegations, according to reports.
The journalist’s critical coverage led to several legal battles. In August 2017, Malta’s opposition leader Adrian Delia filed four lawsuits against Caruana Galizia and accused her of libel for reports she published on her blog. Caruana Galizia’s articles claimed that Delia laundered a total of £1 mln ($1.3 million) from prostitution in London through offshore accounts in his name, according to British and local media.
Delia denied the allegations, and said the account belonged to his client. According to media reports, Delia also said he had resigned from the company that owned the property where the prostitution was allegedly taking place after becoming aware of the way in which it was being used.
CPJ documented in February 2017 how a court ordered Caruana Galizia’s bank accounts to be frozen until a verdict was reached in a libel case that two government officials had filed against her. A public fundraising campaign later raised enough cash to satisfy the court’s demands, according to EuroNews.
Seven were released on bail and three–Vince Muscat [no relation to Prime Minster Muscat] and two brothers named George and Alfredo Degiorgio–were charged with murder, criminal use of explosives, being involved in organized crime, and criminal conspiracy, according to reports. The three pleaded not guilty when they appeared before a judge in December 2017, Maltese media reported.
In a statement, the Caruana Galizia family criticized the lack of communication from Maltese authorities regarding the arrests, saying that they were not contacted in advance and learned about the developments at the same time as the press. The manner in which the arrests were communicated, the family said, indicated “serious institutional deficiencies which are cause for general public concern.”
Further, the family has taken legal action against the Maltese police, alleging that the investigation cannot be impartial because Caruana Galizia wrote critical articles about the chief investigator and the government minister to whom he is married, according to news reports. Members of the European Parliament who visited Malta in November 2017 criticized the country’s rule of law and noted a "perception of impunity" among government officials, according to reports.
In July 2019, Vince Muscat and Alfred and George Degiorgio were formally charged and await a trial date which must be set within 20 months, The Guardian reported.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has expressed concerns over the Maltese authorities’ investigation into the murder and passed a resolution calling for a public inquiry. On July 11, 2019, Foreign Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela confirmed that a public inquiry would take place within three months, in accordance with the resolution, news outlets reported.
On November 15, 2019, Prime Minister Muscat appointed two new members to the board presiding over the public inquiry after the journalist’s family raised concerns about the panel, the daily Times of Malta reported. The government confirmed the appointments in a statement that also said that the government and the family had agreed on the scope of the investigation. Several press freedom groups, including CPJ, welcomed the changes.
On November 14, 2019, Maltese law enforcement arrested Melvin Theuma, a taxi driver whom police described as a suspected middleman. Theuma was detained during a raid on an alleged money laundering ring, according to Maltese media reports.
On November 19, 2019, Theuma offered to name those responsible for ordering the murder of Caruana Galizia in exchange for a presidential pardon, The Guardian reported. News reports said that Theuma was believed to have liaised with people who allegedly helped procure the explosive device that killed the journalist, according to media reports. He was granted a presidential pardon on November 25, 2019, according to local reports.
On November 20, 2019, Maltese law enforcement detained Yorgen Fenech, a businessman, as he was trying to leave Malta by boat, Reuters reported. On November 30, 2019, police charged Fenech with complicity to murder and other charges related to the case, including membership of a criminal gang and conspiracy to cause an explosion, Reuters reported. Fenech pleaded not guilty and made no bail application when he appeared in court on November 30, 2019, Reuters reported.
Several months before her death, Caruana Galizia reported on a company in Dubai that she said she believed was connected to Maltese politicians. A Reuters investigation later found that Fenech owned the company. [The businessman declined to say if he was the owner, Reuters reported in 2018.]
On November 26, 2019, Konrad Mizzi, the tourism minister, and Keith Schembri, the chief of staff in the Muscat administration, resigned and Chris Cardona, the economy minister, announced that he was suspending himself while the investigation into the journalist’s death continued, according to the Guardian report.
In her Panama Papers coverage, Caruana Galizia alleged that Schembri and Mizzi were involved in corruption, according to The Guardian. Both men denied any wrongdoing.
On December 1, 2019, Muscat announced he would stand down as prime minister in January.