One year on, the push for change since the murder of Malta's most famous investigative journalist



Daphne Caruana Galizia

WikiMedia Commons

On the 16th day of every month since the murder of Malta’s most famous investigative journalist, a crowd gathers at the top of a hill in the center of the capital city, Valletta.

At the base of the Great Siege monument, three bronze figures representing faith, fortitude, and civilization, a handwritten sign reads: “BE HERE TODAY AT 7:30PM: VIGIL FOR DAPHNE.” In mid-May, on the seventh month since journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered, I sit at a nearby cafe and watch tourists stop to view the memorial, and read the posters detailing what happened. Like silent actors, their expressions almost identically transition from curiosity to shock to outrage.

“Here? A journalist, killed for her work, here, in Malta? Is this not the European Union?”

People gather at dusk: first, a trickle, then a swell. Some carry candles and flowers that they lay at the base of the statue, while others hold signs with written messages like  “end impunity” and “ġustizzja,” the Maltese word for “justice.”

The vigils, organized by civil society groups, are relatively unobtrusive. But the response both by the Maltese public and government officials is indicative of the state of political dissent in Malta. 

Early this year, someone destroyed the memorial with a broomstick. It was reconstructed soon after, but since then, it has been damaged and removed constantly by both government officials and private citizens.

Caruana Galizia was 53 years old when she was murdered on October 16, 2017. She was driving near her home in Bidnija at around 3pm when her car exploded. Her son heard the blast from the family home, and found her remains. Although ten men were arrested and three charged with her assassination, who ordered her killing and why remains unclear.

The death of Daphne Caruana Galizia has divided Malta and shaken governmental and journalistic institutions to their core. The year since has functioned as a national reckoning, a questioning, and a movement.

The way I heard her describe it is the way a painter is compelled to paint—you do it because, what else do you do?

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Daphne Caruana Galizia was called many things, from a “one woman WikiLeaks” to “witch.” Throughout my time in Malta, I needed only to refer to her by her first name for people to know exactly who I meant.

But she was also the eldest of three sisters, a daughter, and a mother to three boys—Matthew, Andrew, and Paul. She was born in Sliema, and was politicised young—she was arrested as a teenager while attending protests.

“Even as a child, she very much had her own mind,” said Cora Vella, Caruana Galizia’s younger sister. “She was naturally curious, and she read a lot, which opened her mind even further. She always liked writing. But it wasn’t something people did then.”

It wasn’t until after the birth of her sons that Caruana Galizia started writing regularly.

“It started out with her hammering out a column, and she’d send it to the Times of Malta,” said Vella. “She’d think ‘well, okay, at least I had fun writing it.’ But she kept doing it.”

Opinion writing was relatively new then in Malta. Cora Vella described the journalistic landscape then as ‘dry as dust.’ “All the reporters were men, and articles weren’t signed. With few exceptions, there were no proper opinion columnists.”

Malta has no journalism school, and Caruana Galizia received no formal training. She simply began to write, and as she did, she refined her skill.

She worked as a news reporter for the Sunday Times of Malta, and wrote columns for both the Times and The Malta Independent. In 2008, she launched a own blog—Running Commentary—a one-woman operation that regularly racked up 400,000 views a day, outpacing the combined circulation of the country’s newspapers.

“The blog gave her freedom,” Vella said.

Perhaps the last time Malta made front page headlines across the world was the Panama Papers—documents leaked in 2015 that detailed transnational tax evasion and corporate abuse dating back to the 1970s. It was Caruana Galizia that led the Panama Papers investigation in Malta, which implicated officials including the Minister of Energy and Health.

Caruana Galizia was almost uniquely adversarial in her approach to reporting on power in Malta. Her reporting was uncompromising and she wrote fiercely—with enormous consequences for her personal life.

Instinctively, you know something might happen,” said Vella about her sister’s death. “It’s like someone with a terminal illness. You still don’t expect them to die, it’s still a shock.

In 1995, Vella said, the family’s pet dog had its throat slit. Another dog was poisoned, and a third was shot. The family home was set on fire multiple times.

The first time, when Caruana Galizia’s sons were young, Vella said the family heard a cracking sound by the front door. A plant had been set on fire, and the family quickly extinguished it.

“Setting a front door on fire is a warning, but it's not necessarily an attempt to kill. The first time was a threat. The second was a murder attempt.”

Vella said Paul, one of Caruana Galizia’s sons, returned late one night in 2006 and saw flames through a window into the house.

“It was premeditated, and it was opportunistic,” Vella said. “It involved dragging tires across a series of fields, to the back of the house, and up a hill. It’s quite a big job for one person. They stacked the tires against the back of house, big glass doors, poured fuel over them and set it a light. The idea was that it would explode into the house and then you can't get out, and the only reason they managed to get out was that Paul was out of the house.”

The threats took different forms, from killed pets and fires to messages cut out of magazines and mailed to her home. Caruana Galizia took precautions, and there were times when she filed police reports. But the threats did not stop her.

“Instinctively, you know something might happen,” said Vella about her sister’s death. “It’s like someone with a terminal illness. You still don’t expect them to die, it’s still a shock.”

At the time of her death, there were 47 civil and criminal pending libel lawsuits against Caruana Galizia—including some brought by prominent government officials. Even the Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had brought a suit against the journalist, over her report that alleged that Muscat’s wife was a beneficial owner of an offshore company. (Caruana Galizia’s family members inherited responsibility for some of these suits after her death, including Muscat’s.)

Vella isn’t sure where her sister’s fighting spirit came from, and isn’t sure Caruana Galizia would even know herself.

“There’s the cliche of the starving artist—why do they do it?” she said. “Why don’t they just go to work where they can get paid? It’s because it matters so much to you, more than anything else. You can’t keep a pianist away from a piano. The way I heard her describe it is the way a painter is compelled to paint—you do it because, what else do you do?”

A few months after Caruana Galizia’s death, another journalist was murdered in the European Union. Ján Kuciak, a 27-year-old Slovak investigative journalist, was shot twice in the chest and killed along with his fiancee, in Bratislava, Slovakia.

The response was immediate.

Just days after Kuciak’s murder, Slovakia’s Minister of Culture announced his resignation on the grounds that he could not cope with the fact that a journalist was killed during his tenure. And in the wake of his death, protests were held in almost 50 cities across the country. The protests were endorsed by teachers, artists, and non-governmental organizations, universities cancelled their clases, and over 60,000 people marched in Bratislava alone.

Following the protests, Prime Minister Robert Fico resigned. Although the investigation into his death is ongoing, police have stated that Kociak was likely killed because of his work as a journalist, and that his death had been ordered.

Like Caruana Galizia, Kuciak reported on tax fraud, government abuse of power, and shady connections between officials and high profile businessmen. The murders of both journalists sparked were crimes that deeply divided their countries. But to Gulnoza Said, Europe and Central Asia Research Associate at the Committee to Protect Journalists, the stark differences in the responses to the deaths of Kuciak and Caruana Galizia illuminate the specific press freedom climate in Malta.

“Unlike Slovakia, there was no public solidarity in Malta when it comes to [Caruana Galizia’s] murder,” Said said. “There was no universal condemnation, including from the journalist community. Daphne irritated a lot of people. And some said that she deserved what she got, and you didn’t see that in Slovakia.

Shortly before the publication of this post in October 2018, a third European investigative journalist—Bulgarian television reporter Viktoria Marinova—was murdered. Days later, large crowds turned up to mourn her death and protest corruption.

Said thinks that there is a lack of awareness among the Maltese press and public about the implications of the murder of an investigative journalist, and that if there is no justice for Caruana Galizia, this could happen again.

The first anniversary of Caruana Galizia’s death is October 16, 2018. Vigils are planned to commemorate her in cities from Berlin to London—and, in Malta itself, in Valletta at the base of the Great Siege monument.

Why wouldn’t people in Malta care about the murder of investigative journalists?

Tina Urso, an activist who helped found civil society group Il-Kenniesa, explained that the Maltese public is comfortable with corruption in a unique way that it is difficult to articulate with people unfamiliar with the country.

“In other countries, maybe what corruption does is it takes away from the people and gives to the politicians, when in Malta it hasn't actually done that—it has given more money to the people. Like the sale of passports—the country has made so much money from that.”

Malta’s sale of citizenship is deeply controversial. The rocky island nation of 400,000 people is a fully-fledged EU member state, making it an attractive destination for wealthy foreigners in search of an EU passport. To obtain Maltese citizenship, a non-EU citizen just has to agree to reside on the island for at least one year, invest in local property, and pay 650,000 euros to the government.

Urso wrote later that she thinks the impacts of corruption are slowly being felt, and that in the long term, it could be a mechanism of pressuring for change. And many Maltese are concerned that the program is increasing housing costs and facilitating money laundering by Russian and Middle Eastern billionaires—issues that Caruana Galizia wrote about extensively before she was killed.

But for the large proportion of the Maltese public who sees government corruption as materially beneficial, criticism of the Maltese government is tantamount to an attack on Malta itself, and political organizing and investigative journalism are threats to a specific way of life. This line of thinking can lead people to justify or excuse attacks on activists like Urso and journalists like Caruana Galizia.

Urso and two other women organized their first protest in June of 2017, months before Caruana Galizia’s death.

People don’t understand that when we fight for justice for Daphne, it’s justice for what she exposed.

"I cant even explain to people how scared we were. We were just three girls holding a banner. I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe we are so scared to protest in a democratic country.’”

The June protest was Il-Kenniesa’s first protest, but after Caruana Galizia’s murder in October, the group began to organize around the injustice of her silencing with impunity. “Kenniesa” means “sweepers” in Maltese, and the metaphorical broom in question aims to clear away corruption across the country and stand in defense of dissent, rather than organizing against any particular political party.

“I think about the women’s march in the United States, for example and the idea that protest, in recent years does not result in effective or immediate change, but that doesn't mean we stop protesting,” Urso said. She noted that when she speaks to people in Malta about protest, the response she generally gets is that there is no point, and that nothing will change.

Despite this, Urso said that she is driven by hope. “I want to empower people to protest. People don’t understand that when we fight for justice for Daphne, it’s justice for what she exposed. She didn’t just write about Labour.”

Malta has few robust civil society groups, and many are partisan. Il-Kenniesa, in contrast, calls out corruption from both the Labour and Nationalist parties.

“It makes us vulnerable,” Urso told me. “Because we get hate from everyone.”

Urso has been the target of extensive online harassment. She said that she has received emails with threatening messages advocating that she should be burned alive, and that rumors are constantly spread about her on social media platforms, like the lie that she dated one of Caruana Galizia’s sons. And early in 2018, Urso’s parents’ home address was posted on Facebook, and people even planned a protest outside of the house.

The rumors and threats targeting not just Urso, but also other transparency activists and Caruana Galizia’s family members, seem to originate from large Facebook groups. Their memberships total tens of thousands of people, including government officials. The phenomenon was detailed at length in an investigation by Caroline Muscat, a journalist and co-founder at The Shift News.

“Alongside the Prime Minister and Labour leader himself, a minimum of eight senior staff working for him are members of Facebook groups containing violent comments, including the distribution of anti-corruption activists’ personal details and calls for them to be physically attacked, sexually assaulted, and stalked,” Muscat’s reporting reads.

Urso explained the dynamic: “People will create these fake Facebook profiles and put up libellous information about me, and they’ll be shared by real accounts. As soon as it’s reported, Facebook will take it down a few hours later, but the information is already out there and it’ll be re-posted and shared so many times. I file police reports because I want it to be on record, but they asked me to send the URLs of the posts. I was like, ‘This was weeks in! Those posts aren’t still up!’ I had the screenshots.”

(Later, Urso said that some people have been charged in connection with the police reports she filed, but no court cases have begun.)

She takes extensive precautions now to protect her personal information online, but she worries that she is being made an example out of in order to intimidate others from speaking out.

“They see what happens to protesters like me and they think, ‘If that happens to me, I will lose my job.’ People are scared.”

Urso said that she is still inspired by the people she has seen raise their voices and call for change in recent months, and that Il-Kenniesa, will continue campaigning for justice for Caruana Galizia and her stories. She hopes for a change in Maltese culture around corruption. “Honoring her means a commitment to not stop asking the questions she was asking.”

Approaching the one year anniversary of Daphne’s death, what has changed?

Three men have been charged
with Caruana Galizia’s murder.

Gulnoza Said with Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) noted that there have been numerous attempts by authorities to influence the trial already, and that there are reasons to question the judiciary’s independence. Because of this, CPJ has hired local lawyers to monitor and document every aspect of the trial, and CPJ and other press freedom groups will be going to Malta to meet with government officials about the case.

But there are the men who allegedly triggered the bomb, and then there are the people that ordered it done—who are in all likelihood vastly more powerful, and, according to numerous people I talked to during my time in Malta, unlikely to be brought to justice.

“Daphne’s family has called on the government to set up a judicial public inquiry into whether her life could have been saved,” Cora Vella wrote. She thinks that this is obligatory under Article II of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees a right to life. “A public inquiry is the only way to rule out state complicity or failure, and the only way to learn how to prevent future deaths.”

Some people, like Tina Urso, are skeptical that the investigation will ever uncover who ordered her killing. To her, it’s representative of the way corruption functions in Malta—like grasping in the dark, the evidence just disappears.

Caruana Galizia’s husband Peter said in April that political interests had compromised the integrity of the investigation, and that he feared the mastermind would never be found guilty.

But there are different kinds of justice. After Caruana Galizia’s death, a group of 45 journalists from 15 countries has picked up the journalist’s work, continuing and expanding the reporting she was doing before she was killed. The Daphne Project is coordinated by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based organization that continues the work not only of journalists who have been killed, but also those that have been imprisoned or otherwise incapacitated.

“By protecting and continuing the work of reporters who can no longer investigate, we can send a powerful signal to enemies of the press: even if you succeed in stopping a single messenger, you will not stop the message,” Forbidden Stories’ website reads.

Since its launch, the Daphne Project’s published investigations have focused on subjects including Malta’s sale of citizenship, the Sicilian mafia, and the implications of Malta’s gas deal with Azerbaijan for the public.

And civil society groups like Il-Kenniesa continue to organize: calling attention to broad dynamics of corruption and dangerous partisan loyalty in Malta, pushing for answers around Caruana Galizia’s death, and holding vigils.

Caruana Galizia's memorial in May 2018

Tensions continue to flare around Caruana Galizia’s memorial in Valletta. In September, officials cleared the area on orders from the Justice Minister, who cited “health and safety” reasons. One journalist tweeted that she caught public employees removing a photograph of Caruana Galizia in the middle of the night before driving away in a government car.

The memorial has become a key battleground site and symbolic of larger tensions around freedom of expression in Malta.

"Is it now extremely evident that our freedom of expression is being blatantly suppressed," said activist group Occupy Justice to the Times of Malta. "This has basically become an issue of health and safety of our democracy."

Activists defend the memorial, even spending the night at the base of the Great Siege monument to guard it. And every time the memorial is cleared, whether by cleansing department employees, police, or angry members of the public, banners and candles seem to sprout back.

And as for Daphne, I have this maddening, maddening feeling that she knew what to do to avoid that end, but wouldn’t do it, because duty calls.

On an overcast day in mid-May, I meet blogger and activist Manuel Delia blocks from Caruana Galizia’s memorial.

Delia’s blog, like Caruana Galizia’s, takes aim at some of the most powerful figures in Malta, and features sharp commentary on local and European politics.

“I knew [Caruana Galizia] for the better part of 20 or 25 years,” Delia said. “The first time I remember meeting her, I was around 17, and she was an associate editor at the Independent.”

Delia had written a letter to the editor, and Caruana Galizia called him in for a chat. But Delia remembers reading her work long before that, ever since he was a preteen reading the news. “Her writing would just jump out at you. I was aware of her way before she was aware of me.”

While Delia worked in politics for over 15 years, including as a press secretary for the prime minister, he interacted with Caruana Galizia professionally. “She would give you hell, but demanded incredible respect,” he said, smiling. “I was always an admirer, and you know, she would whip the people I worked with. I always had a bit of a teenage crush.”

It wasn’t until the last four or five months of Caruana Galizia’s life that Delia got to know her in a deeper sense, when he started writing a blog in his free time. Caruana Galizia noticed his blog after he had written a 3,000 word analysis of a recent election, and she put up her own post that pointed to his—which brought a flood of readers to Delia’s new blog.

As he wrote a few posts a week, Delia said it was clear that she was reading them. They discussed politics and blogging, and after Caruana Galizia’s death, Delia quit his full-time job to focus on the blog.

The day before our meeting, Delia’s website was taken offline completely targeted with a denial of service attack.

“It was a massive attack,” Delia told me. “My website hosting managers said that in 18 years they’d never seen anything like it. It was meant to work. Someone knew what they were doing.”

Rising readership of his blog and denial of service attacks on his website have increased the technical and financial burdens of maintaining the site. But despite the inconveniences and what Delia sees as a chilling precedent of the targeting of citizen journalists and bloggers in Malta, he is also flattered by the attention.

“I suppose it says that I’m annoying people the same way Daphne used to,” he said.

As an amateur historian, Delia recognizes that it’s a common and easy mistake to color the past with the supreme benefit of hindsight. But yet, reflecting on some of the last things that Caruana Galizia wrote before her death, he thinks that she did understand the seriousness of the threats to her life, and the potential implications—although not to the point of accepting it.

“She would write things like, ‘I think by now they must have realized that unless they kill me, I won’t stop.’ These are not easy things to say: I don’t say them flippantly and neither did she. She was anything but flippant.”

It is, of course, impossible to know to what extent Caruana Galizia had resigned herself to the possibility of martyrdom for her work. And knowing there is a potential for something to happen is not the same as viscerally coming to terms with it. But it all feels a bit beside the point. None of it makes her murder less tragic or her journalism less powerful. If anything, the constant threats and violence that she faced make her death only more of an outrage.

Delia refers to a biblical passage in which God asks Jesus to drink a cup of poison containing God’s accumulated wrath and fury against all sin.

“Jesus understood what was going to happen, and that he could walk away from it. And yet, he won’t, because duty calls. And as for Daphne, I have this maddening, maddening feeling that she knew what to do to avoid that end, but wouldn’t do it, because duty calls.”

Delia sighs. “That’s a scary thing because in order to go on, you find ways of not allowing that to be in the front of your considerations. And I wonder if I’m doing that. I’m nowhere near doing what Daphne did. But if I could, I would.”

If Caruana Galizia could have known that her life would end the way it did, and foreseen the impact her journalism would have, both in terms of questions she asked and the national conversations that her writing sparked, perhaps she would have done nothing differently. But we must be careful to not fetishize sacrifice and legitimize living under constant threat of violence as a cost of brave journalism.

Daphne Caruana Galizia was unreasonably, impossibly, brave. Her life’s work challenged not only the narratives of the powerful, but also pushed the Maltese public to question and think differently. One year after her death, even as the search for answers continues, her work continues to drive the movement against corruption and for transparency forward in Malta.

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