Home / World / Brutal Killing of Journalist Exposes ‘Something Darker’ in Malta

Brutal Killing of Journalist Exposes ‘Something Darker’ in Malta

How a country that has in many ways been so successful could be the scene of such a macabre and brutal murder on a picturesque road only a half-hour’s drive from the capital, Valletta, has left many asking what went wrong.

In the absence of hard evidence, Maltese are grasping at wild coincidences and conspiracy theories.

The murder took place exactly five years to the hour after the dismissal of Malta’s former senior official in the European Union, the disgraced former health commissioner John Dalli. The murder, Mr. Dalli said, “had absolutely nothing” to do with his own troubles.

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Ms. Caruana Galizia in 2011. The list of people she angered with her reporting is long.

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Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

Mr. Dalli was another regular target of Ms. Caruana Galizia’s writing — “Everything she wrote about me was a lie,” he said — and yet another well-connected insider who, despite detailed allegations of corruption, has never been prosecuted in Malta.

Mr. Dalli, who in December filed a harassment complaint with the police against Ms. Caruana Galizia, said he “was very angry” when he heard she had been killed. “It basically removed my chances of exculpating myself from everything she said about me,” he said.

Justin Borg-Barthet, a Maltese legal expert who lectures at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, said the legal system, built up during British colonial rule, has been so steadily eroded by political meddling and constant reshuffling of the police leadership that virtually nobody expects justice to be done in the case of the murdered journalist.

“Trust does not function as a reliable constitutional principal when people are untrustworthy,” he said.

Ms. Caruana Galizia, 53, had an insider’s grasp of that world. “There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate,” she wrote in her last blog post Monday afternoon, just a half-hour before she left her family home by car to run errands and was blown to pieces.

The bombing stunned Malta, where known criminals sometimes attack one another but where the streets are safe and violence against public figures is extremely rare. It also sent tremors through the European Union, which took in Malta as a member in 2004 and, at a time of deep disillusionment with the “European project” in Britain and elsewhere, has often pointed to Malta’s economic success as an example of how Europe can work.

“Such incidents bring to mind Putin’s Russia, not the European Union,” Sven Giegold, a prominent German member of the European Parliament, said of the killing. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, speaking to fellow European leaders at a summit meeting in Brussels on Thursday, expressed dismay and outrage at the killing.

Before Monday’s car bomb, Malta seemed to be enjoying a run of remarkable good luck, often thanks to the misfortune of other countries in the region. A banking crisis in Cyprus, in 2013 helped lift Malta’s own financial services industry as the island positioned itself as an alternative haven. (Pilatus Bank, set up in Malta in 2014 by an enigmatic Iranian, who is now a citizen of St. Kitts and Nevis, to serve wealthy private clients, was a frequent target of Ms. Caruana Galizia.)











Malta also benefited from the turmoil unleashed in North Africa after the Arab Spring democracy movement, which prompted many European tourists to choose Maltese beaches over those in Tunisia, its old rival for tourist dollars. Nearly two million tourists visited Malta last year, a country with a population of about 430,000, compared with 1.1 million before the Arab Spring.

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union last year also helped advance Malta’s efforts to promote itself as a safe, low-tax, English-speaking jurisdiction firmly inside the bloc. It has, for example, become Europe’s main hub for online gambling.

It has attracted yet more money by selling passports to wealthy foreigners ready to put up more than $1.5 million to buy citizenship. Authorities have refused to name the buyers or disclose their nationalities, but they reported last year that nearly 700 passports had been sold.

Mr. Caruana Galizia frequently attacked the passport program as a license for corruption and an open invitation to wealthy and often shady foreigners to make Malta their home, or at least their hideaway.

Malta, a British colony until 1964, became such an attractive destination for foreign money that a regional finance minister in Germany recently described it as the “Panama of Europe,” after German tax authorities were leaked the names of 70,000 foreign companies and individuals with holdings there.

Since 2013, Malta has surpassed Cyprus as a banking center, relative to the size of its economy, with assets worth more than 500 percent of the island’s gross domestic product, compared with 420 percent in Cyprus, the European Central Bank says.

Christian Peregin, the founder of an online news site, Lovin Malta, and an admirer of the dead journalist, said the killing had exposed a reality that Ms. Caruana Galizia had spent decades trying to uncover, a mission that won her a long list of enemies and scores of libel suits.

One of those who sued her this year — and got a court to freeze her bank accounts — is Malta’s economy minister, whom she enraged with a February report that he had been seen along with an aide in a brothel in the German town of Velbert. The minister, who was visiting Germany on government business, insisted he had been attending a conference at the time of the reported sighting.

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A vigil at the University of Malta to protest the killing.

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Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

“Beneath the veneer of a successful, well-to-do European nation there is something darker here,” Mr. Peregin said. “Malta is between Europe and North Africa. We speak English and have very English traditions, but we also speak Maltese — basically a mix of Arabic and Italian — and our national psyche is always somewhere between these two very different worlds.”

This split has in turn helped shape and harden a deep and often passionate political divide between the Labour Party, which Ms. Caruana Galizia loathed, and the Nationalist Party. She used to support the Nationalists until a new leader took over whom she described as being in cahoots with criminals because of his previous work as a lawyer on behalf of Maltese clients who she said ran a prostitution racket in London’s Soho district.

The Nationalist leader, Adrian Delia, was so angered by Mr. Caruana Galizia’s articles, which included details of a secret offshore bank account he controlled, that he filed four complaints against her for defamation.

He dropped the cases after the killing and is now trying to position himself as her defender, demanding that the prime minister, Mr. Muscat, resign and take “political responsibility” for the car bomb.

Malta, he said in an interview, is such a small, insular place that whenever villages hold celebrations “they have two separate feasts or two bands at the same feast,” because half of the village is feuding with the other half for political or other reasons.

“We have to fight not only corruption but our culture of hatred,” he said.

Ms. Caruana Galizia, whose family spoke English at home rather than Maltese, played into and helped fan this culture, sneering at rule-bending compatriots as “Sicilians” and drawing the hostility of those who viewed her as the haughty representative of an Anglicized elite.

Saviour Balzan, a veteran editor and longtime adversary, called her a “spiteful snob” who reveled in ridiculing people she viewed as inferior, particularly those who supported the Labour Party.

When the party’s former leader, Dom Mintoff, died at 96 in 2012, Ms. Caruana Galizia rejoiced at his passing: She wrote in her blog, Running Commentary, “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah … may you rot in hell.”

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The blast was so powerful that it took investigators four days to collect body parts and wreckage scattered across nearby fields.

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Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

She stirred such strong feelings that her killing even prompted cheers in some quarters. Ramon Mifsud, a police officer whom she had portrayed in her blog as a drunken habitué of bars and lap dancing clubs, celebrated her killing with a post on his Facebook page: “Everyone gets what they deserve, cow dung.” Suspended from the police force, he quickly deleted the message.

“She was certainly the best investigative journalist Malta has ever seen. However, she was at times also a tabloid trash writer, and did not always follow normal journalistic standards,” Ken Mifsud Bonnici, a Maltese legal adviser to the European Commission in Brussels, said, speaking in a personal capacity. Nevertheless, he added: “People do not get killed for publishing lies.”

The Maltese news media reported that the bomb that killed Ms. Caruana Galizia was made from Semtex, the plastic explosive that brought down a Boeing 747 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Malta’s previous car bombings involved more easily obtained explosives and targeted known criminals or their associates.

The police commissioner, Lawrence Cutajar, the fifth person to hold Malta’s top law enforcement job in just four years, declined at a news conference on Thursday to comment on the kind of explosive used. He was so evasive in his response to questions that local journalists left the event convinced that the case, like previous car bombings, would never be solved — despite the presence of investigators from the F.B.I. and the Dutch police.

With trust in the police so low, representatives of the island’s main news outlets filed a petition with a court in Valletta demanding that any information found by investigators on Ms. Caruana Galizia’s phone and computer relating to her sources be kept secret to protect their security.

“When a leading journalist — an institution — is killed and you don’t have any faith in the justice system, everyone becomes a suspect,” Mr. Peregin said. “We are all scared because we have no idea who killed her.

“It could be anyone she has written about over the last 30 years, or it could be a message to the Maltese press or the government: Watch out for your neck and accept our demands or we will do worse.”

Mr. Balzan, the managing editor of Malta Today, said that while he was a critic of Ms. Caruana Galizia’s work, he was appalled and frightened by her murder. “What happened has taken us back to the Stone Age,” he said. “Who would want to work in journalism after this? Why should I go to work when people are asking: Who will be next?”

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