The Media Today

After more than two years, the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder case leaps forward

December 2, 2019

On October 16, 2017, Daphne Caruana Galizia—an investigative journalist with a reputation as a scourge of Malta’s governing and business class—left home to regain access to her bank account, which had been frozen after Chris Cardona, her country’s economy minister, sued her for libel. She didn’t make it very far. Assassins remotely detonated a bomb they had lodged under the driver’s seat of Caruana Galizia’s rental car. Her son Matthew Caruana Galizia, also an investigative journalist, heard the resulting explosion, and ran outside to find parts of the car and his mother’s body strewn across the road. “I expected to see something like the shadow of a person or something,” he told the New York Times. “But there was nothing. It was just flames.”

In a world where journalists are routinely attacked for their work, Caruana Galizia’s death stood out—for the brazenness of its execution, but also because it happened in a European Union member state. Her murder served as a reminder that the fight for press freedom is universal. Developments this past week have been a reminder that keeping up that fight can eventually, belatedly yield something like accountability. Caruana Galizia’s case has vaulted suddenly forward, throwing up a web of intrigue that has cast Malta’s government into crisis.

ICYMI: “Suddenly, the car jerks back as a fiery explosion rips through the front seats”

Less than two months after the murder, Maltese authorities arrested three men they believe carried it out. After that, progress seemed to stall. The suspects were only indicted in July of this year, days before a legal deadline requiring them to face trail or be released. The Council of Europe, a supranational human-rights organization, criticized the investigation and Malta’s weak rule-of-law framework; Caruana Galizia’s family accused authorities of wanting the men in custody to take the fall for her murder, so as to avoid having to investigate the alleged implication of politically connected people. In the meantime, journalists picked up some of the slack. Last year, Forbidden Stories, an organization that works to further the reporting of threatened journalists, launched the Daphne Project—a collaboration with 18 outlets, including the Times, The Guardian, and Le Monde, that shone a light on the circumstances of Caruana Galizia’s death, and pulled on various investigative threads that she never got to tie up.

As part of her reporting, Caruana Galizia had linked two senior Maltese politicians—Keith Schembri, the chief of staff to Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat; and Konrad Mizzi, a minister in Muscat’s government—to shell companies named in the Panama Papers. Last November, Reuters and the Times of Malta reported, as part of the Daphne Project, that those entities were tied to another shady company, 17 Black, and named Yorgen Fenech, a Maltese property and gambling magnate, as its owner.

Over the past two weeks, these names have been back in Malta’s news in a big way. In the early hours of November 20, Malta’s armed forces arrested Fenech on his luxury yacht. According to the Times of Malta and other outlets, Fenech subsequently told investigators that Schembri masterminded Caruana Galizia’s killing; Fenech also claimed that Schembri tried to help him flee the country prior to his arrest, then, following the arrest, arranged for an unsigned note to be passed to Fenech with instructions as to how he should answer questions. Investigators treated Fenech’s claims with skepticism; still, they arrested Schembri last Tuesday, shortly after he resigned as Muscat’s top aide. (They were able to establish a pattern of close communication between Fenech and Schembri, including a phone call shortly before Fenech’s arrest.) Also on Tuesday, Mizzi resigned as tourism minister and Cardona—who also faced police questions, though not as a suspect—“suspended himself” as economy minister. Government officials were shown Schembri’s supposed note to Fenech at a cabinet meeting on Thursday; afterward, sources told the Times of Malta that it appeared to be an effort to frame Cardona for Caruana Galizia’s murder. One minister described reading it as the worst moment of his life. (Schembri, who was freed from police custody late last week, has denied writing the note, or any other wrongdoing. Mizzi and Cardona also deny wrongdoing.) While all this was going on, Fenech appealed for a pardon in exchange for information on Schembri, Mizzi, Cardona, and others. The appeal was rejected. On Saturday, Fenech was formally charged with complicity in Caruana Galizia’s killing. He pleaded not guilty.

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These developments have proved a death knell for Muscat, who has faced longstanding criticism for his handling of Caruana Galizia’s case. On Friday—amid mounting protests against his government—he told associates that he planned to resign as prime minister; yesterday, he made that official, announcing on state television that he’ll step down in January. Some observers—including Caruana Galizia’s family and the Times of Malta’s editorial board—want him gone sooner. “Muscat has delayed his resignation in an attempt to continue protecting himself and Schembri,” the family wrote. “There is no alternative explanation.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.