Why a journalist’s murder is shaking the Maltese government

Why We Wrote This

How the European Union deals with its own corrupt states may be best judged by its handling of cases like that of Malta, the bloc’s smallest country, which is currently in the throes of a major scandal.

Rene Rossignaud/AP
Mandy Mallia (right), sister of Daphne Caruana Galizia, protests outside the office of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat in Valletta, Malta, Dec. 3, 2019, as a delegation of European Union lawmakers visited the country after an investigation into Ms. Caruana Galizia's murder.

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Investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered in Malta in 2017, but her research into far-reaching corruption in the island nation, combined with the inquiry into her death, looks set to bear fruit – and bring down a prime minister.

At the time of her killing, Ms. Caruana Galizia was reportedly investigating the links between local tycoon Yorgen Fenech, a gas deal with Azerbaijan, and two political figures associated with Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. Her family and a network of journalists have doggedly campaigned for justice in the case and pushed on with her investigations. The dominoes began to fall when Mr. Fenech was arrested in late November and charged with complicity in Ms. Caruana Galizia’s assassination. Mr. Fenech’s business dealings and government ties were a focal point of the slain journalist’s investigations.

His arrest triggered political upheaval and street protests against the government. Mr. Muscat announced Dec. 1 that he would be stepping down as prime minister, although not before mid-January. But protests have continued, as critics worry Mr. Muscat will use the time that he has left in office to undermine the investigation.

“There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate.”

These were the last words published on the blog of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia before she was murdered in Malta in 2017. But now, her investigation into far-reaching corruption in the island nation, combined with the inquiry into her death, looks set to bear fruit – and bring down a prime minister. Yet Malta is not the only country where rule of law is being challenged within the European Union. How the bloc acts there could shape the broader response to the problem.

Who was Daphne Caruana Galizia?

Ms. Caruana Galizia had led the Panama Papers investigation in Malta, the smallest member in the European Union, and her stories unnerved the highest echelons of power there. The recipient of multiple death threats, she enjoyed police protection, but this was reduced and then cut entirely for 2013 in a move perceived as political retaliation for her anti-corruption work. She was killed when a bomb planted in her car exploded as she drove away from her home in October 2017. 

At the time of her killing, Ms. Caruana Galizia was reportedly investigating the links between local tycoon Yorgen Fenech, a gas deal with Azerbaijan, and two political figures associated with Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. Three men were charged with her murder, though it remains unclear who ordered them to do it. Her family and a network of journalists have doggedly campaigned for justice in the case and pushed on with her investigations.

What triggered the current political crisis?

The dominoes began to fall when Mr. Fenech, Malta’s wealthiest man, was arrested in late November and charged with complicity in Ms. Caruana Galizia’s assassination. Mr. Fenech’s business dealings and government ties were a focal point of the slain journalist’s investigations. The suspect reportedly got tipoffs about the investigation from the government’s chief of staff. 

His arrest triggered political upheaval and street protests against the government, resulting in a string of high-level resignations. Mr. Muscat himself announced Dec. 1 that he would be stepping down as prime minister, although not before mid-January. Critics worry that Mr. Muscat, who oversaw a period of strong economic growth, will use the time that he has left in office to undermine the investigation. Protests have continued even after his announcement.

A European Parliament delegation, which spent 48 hours in Malta on an urgent fact-finding mission, concluded that the integrity of the investigation would be best safeguarded by the immediate resignation of the prime minister. “Killing a journalist is like stabbing democracy,” said Assita Kanko, a member of the European Parliament who was part of the mission.

How will the EU handle Malta? 

Malta’s wide-reaching corruption scandal is both a test and an opportunity to set the tone for new European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at a time when rule of law as a value is brazenly challenged within the European Union. Disciplinary proceedings against Poland and Hungary proved divisive and had little effect. 

Michiel van Hulten, director of Transparency International EU, says the crisis in Malta showcases the “need to equip the EU with supervisory powers and the necessary autonomy to intervene in cases of repeated anti-money-laundering failings and inappropriate response from national authorities.” One option on the table would be to make EU funds conditional on upholding the rule of law.

EU funds, according to academic Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, were part of the problem in Malta, as they relaunched cronyism in a country that had made a transition toward relatively good governance. For nations that join the EU when still relatively poor, she notes, EU funds can prove a curse rather than a blessing.

“Perhaps what the EU should reflect [on] is how to mitigate unintended consequences and reduce feeding corruption before punishing it, where it has few means,” says  Professor Mungiu-Pippidi, the chair of democracy studies at the Hertie School in Berlin. “In the end, it is the Maltese justice system which has to perform.”

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