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Murder of Panama Papers journalist highlights risks for European press

Matthew Mirabelli, AFP | A message seen on the pavement as thousands of people gather for a candlelight vigil in Sliema, on October 16, 2017, in tribute to late journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

The murder of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia is a grim reminder of the risk journalists and whistleblowers face, not just in places like Russia and Egypt but in European democracies as well.


At 2:35pm on October 16, prominent investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia published a post on her blog, Running Commentary. “There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate,” the post rued.

Minutes later, she got into her Peugeot 108 and set off up the road. She hadn’t gone far before a car bomb ripped the vehicle apart and propelled its burning carcass into an open field. Caruana Galizia was 53 and leaves behind a husband and three sons.

Even before her death, there were few people in Malta who weren’t familiar with the journalist, whom Politico once deemed a “one-woman WikiLeaks crusading against untransparency and corruption in Malta, an island nation famous for both". In a country with a population of 440,000, her blog drew as many as 400,000 readers a figure bigger than the combined circulation of the country’s newspapers, Politico reported.

Her massive readership meant that those who drew her fire felt the heat.

“We are rather sure that her murder is directly linked with her work as an investigative journalist,” Ricardo Gutiérrez, General Secretary of the European Federation of Journalists, told FRANCE 24.

Caruana Galizia had faced repeated threats for her work. The first attack took place in 1995 when her front door was doused in fuel and set on fire, the Washington Post reported. Next came the brutal killing of her pet collie, its throat slit. Those aggressions came after she had written a column in Malta’s largest newspaper calling for the resignation of the commander of Malta’s armed forces because his children had been linked to drug trafficking.

The threats resumed in 2006 after she published an article about neo-Nazi groups in Malta. That time, a bunch of tires were stacked behind her house and set on fire. The attacks escalated from there. Local media reported that she told the police earlier this month that she had received death threats, but Maltese authorities did not confirm that.

A symbol of press interference

For Gutiérrez, Caruana Galizia represented all journalists facing interference. The Council of Europe hosts a platform to promote the protection of journalism and the safety of journalists, which publishes alerts about threats facing journalists in council nations. Since it was launched in 2015, the platform has recorded more than 350 violations of media freedoms in Europe.

An alert about Caruana Galizia was issued on the platform in February of this year, after a Maltese court froze her bank accounts in relation to libel cases filed against her by Chris Cardona, the nation’s economy minister. The move was seen as judicial harassment and a bid to gag the press.

In March, the Council of Europe published a report entitled Journalists Under Pressure, based on the responses of 940 journalists. The report showed that nearly a third of those surveyed had been physically assaulted over a period of three years and 69 percent of them had been subjected to psychological violence, including intimidation, threats, slandering and bullying. About a third of respondents said that such interference led to some form of self-censorship. But 36 percent of them said that obstruction made them more determined to continue their work.

“For us, she was a symbol of those journalists,” Gutiérrez said. "Because of that, when the Council of Europe decided to do a follow-up, qualitative, study, she was one of 25 journalists selected to participate."

The woman charged with conducting that study was Marilyn Clark, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Malta, who had been the key researcher in the first report. As a resident of Malta, she was well acquainted with Caruana Galizi’s work.

“She was determined to continue being a critical voice in our country,” Clark said. “She was extremely resilient.” Clark sees Caruana Galizi as a role model for journalists, particularly women, and as “an extremely courageous individual".

Dangerous enemies

“My mother was assassinated because she stood between the rule of law and those who sought to violate it, like many strong journalists,” her son Matthew Caruana Galizi wrote on Facebook in a post describing his sprint to the scene of her death after hearing the blast.

“I am never going to forget, running around the inferno in the field, trying to figure out a way to open the door, the horn of the car still blaring, screaming at two policemen who turned up with a single fire extinguisher to use it,” he wrote. “They stared at me. “I’m sorry, there is nothing we can do”, one of them said. I looked down and there were my mother’s body parts all around me. I realised they were right, it was hopeless.

“I am sorry for being graphic, but this is what war looks like, and you need to know…We are a people at war against the state and organised crime, which have become indistinguishable.”

For all her followers, Caruana Galizi was not without her detractors in Malta, especially among the political elite. After the 2016 release of the Panama Papers, she wrote articles alleging that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s wife, then energy minister Konrad Mizzi and Muscat’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, had offshore holdings in Panama to receive money from Azerbaijan. Mizzi and Schembri filed libel suits against her.

Cardona’s libel suit was over articles she wrote saying that he visited a brothel while in Germany on government business leading to the freezing of her bank accounts. And Nationalist Party and opposition leader, Adrian Delia, sued her for libel for stories linking him to a prostitution racket in London.

Those responsible for the blast have not yet been identified, but her son and Gutiérrez both feel there is plenty of blame to go around.

“I believe all the people who threatened her are co-responsible for what happened,” Gutiérrez said. “If you threaten a journalist in such a harsh way you can give bad ideas to bad people.”

Matthew Caruana Galizi was more specific in his finger pointing.

In his posting on Facebook, Matthew Caruana Galizia accused Muscat of being complicit in his mother’s death. “First he filled his office with crooks, then he filled the police with crooks and imbeciles, then he filled the courts with crooks and incompetents.”

But the prime minister vowed to do everything he could to bring those responsible to justice.

“She was probably my biggest adversary; she attacked me from when I was leader of the opposition. But that was her job,” he said in an interview with Italy’s La Repubblica daily, adding that he had called in “the FBI and other European security services” to find her killers.

Dutch forensic experts arrived on the island on Tuesday to help with the investigation. Police sources said Semtex explosives were believed to have been used in the car bomb, a demolition compound known to be favoured by terrorists in large-scale attacks.

“It is unthinkable in a country like Malta to die for your job, in Caruana Galizia’s case for what she wrote,” Muscat said.

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