Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the prime minister of Malta announcing his resignation on December 1, amid a tsunami of corruption allegations, was that so many people cared. The world’s 10th-smallest country, with a population of just under half a million people, Malta is a barren archipelago in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. If it’s known at all, it’s for being a tax haven. But with executive abuses of power, authoritarianism, and cronyism breaking out in democracies across the world, Malta is a case study in the persistence needed to topple a crooked government in this, our golden age of political sleaze.
To the casual observer, Malta’s last decade had been a success story. It rode out the European financial crisis in admirable fashion, and when Joseph Muscat, the son of a fireworks magnate, was elected prime minister, in 2013, he officially recognized same-sex unions, lowered unemployment, and oversaw unprecedented economic growth. But not everyone agreed with this rosy picture. Chief among the naysayers was the investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia, author of the hugely popular one-woman blog Running Commentary.
In Caruana Galizia’s telling, Muscat’s financialization drive was simply a way of attracting dirty money from exiled North African strongmen, Central Asian oligarchs, and assorted other kleptocrats. She called Malta “a nest of thieves” and regularly attacked its politicians in excoriating terms. These attacks could come in the form of a deeply researched exposé of a tobacco-lobbying scandal, or as the snide mocking of a married politician liking the Facebook photographs of glamour models. Her outraged and occasionally outrageous posts made her one of the most well-known journalists in the country, and her relentless investigation of cronyism and corruption made her a magnet for whistle-blowers.
Caruana Galizia’s biggest scoop came after the release of the Panama Papers, the massive leak of information from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca in 2016, which revealed a global web of shady offshore banking. She discovered that the Maltese prime minister’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, and his then-minister for energy and health, Konrad Mizzi, had set up secret Panama-registered companies just months after entering office. She believed these shell companies were being used to siphon off funds from a controversial “cash for passports” program, in which a Maltese passport, and thus prized citizenship in the European Union, could be gained by donating $726,000 into a “national development fund.”
Caruana Galizia’s outraged and occasionally outrageous posts made her one of the most well-known journalists in the country, and her relentless investigation of cronyism and corruption made her a magnet for whistle-blowers.
Politico declared her a “one-woman WikiLeaks.” But Prime Minister Muscat refused to dismiss his colleagues. So Caruana Galizia dug deeper and reported that the prime minister’s own wife, Michelle Muscat, not only had her own secret Panamanian company but that it had received $1.1 million from the daughter of Azerbaijan’s dictator, Ilham Aliyev. This was notable because Malta had recently struck a billion-dollar deal with Socar, Azerbaijan’s state-owned energy company, to supply gas to its power stations for the next decade at nearly twice the market rate.
In the spring of 2017, when Caruana Galizia published these new claims on her blog, protests erupted in the streets. But this time the Maltese political machine swung into action against her. The prime minister denied everything, announced an investigation into his wife’s holdings, called for a snap election, and sued Caruana Galizia for libel. The blogger’s bank accounts were frozen, her source for the Azerbaijani story was arrested, and the prime minister’s office encouraged members of the public to film and photograph her wherever she went. Muscat won the election and Caruana Galizia became, in her own words, “a national scapegoat.”
Undaunted, she dug deeper still, discovering a mysterious financial entity called 17 Black, a company incorporated in the U.A.E. and registered in Dubai that she believed was funneling money to Maltese politicians—if only she could work out who owned it. She kept up the pressure on Muscat’s government even as the libel suits piled up. On October 16, 2017, she wrote a blog post titled “That Crook Schembri Was in Court Today Pleading That He Is Not a Crook,” which recounted many of the accusations she had placed against the prime minister’s chief of staff and ended with “There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate.” Half an hour later she got into her Peugeot 108 and drove down the hill from her house, in the rural village of Bidnija. It was then that the car bomb went off.
The explosive blasted a 6-foot-wide hole in the road, flung the car 150 feet into a nearby field, and scattered Caruana Galizia’s body to the four winds. Whoever planted it didn’t just want her killed; they wanted to send a message. It proved to be a woeful miscalculation. Caruana Galizia’s name began trending on Twitter. The presidents of the European Commission and the European Parliament both condemned the attack. Even Pope Francis sent a letter of condolence. The scapegoat had become a martyr.
“There are crooks everywhere you look now,” Caruana Galizia ended her final post. “The situation is desperate.”
Six weeks later, three arrests were made, but no one believed the assassins—career criminals—had acted on their own. Pro-government news outlets tried to tie her death to oil smugglers, saying the bomb in her car had been made out of Semtex and brought in from Libya. But she’d hardly written about oil smuggling, and investigators later found that the car bomb was made from TNT, an explosive readily available in any of Malta’s 32 fireworks factories.
And yet nothing happened. No further arrests were made. Nobody resigned. The prime minister’s investigation into his wife’s finances found her to be innocent as a lamb, and business went on as usual.
Then, in November 2019, a coalition of journalists from across the world, working under the name the Daphne Project, revealed they had been continuing Caruana Galizia’s investigations, most notably into 17 Black. They had discovered that the owner of the company was Yorgen Fenech, one of Malta’s richest men. Coincidentally, Fenech was the director and co-owner of a business group that had won the right to build a $500 million gas power station in Malta, the concession for which had been granted by none other than Muscat’s cronies Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri. The Daphne Project revealed that 17 Black had been scheduled to pay the secret Panamanian companies held by Mizzi and Schembri some $2 million for their trouble.
Events began to move quickly. On November 19, while working on a separate money-laundering operation, Malta’s police force stumbled upon a suspect who confessed he had been the middleman in Caruana Galizia’s murder. In return for immunity and protection, he named Yorgen Fenech of 17 Black as the mastermind of the whole plot. Fenech was arrested the next day as he attempted to sail his yacht out of Maltese waters. Back on dry land he pleaded not guilty to murder charges but offered to testify against Schembri and Mizzi and others “close to the prime minister.” Finally, following police interrogation, Schembri and then Mizzi resigned, while Christian Cardona, the economy minister, “suspended himself.” Thousands protested—Caruana Galizia’s family among them—in the capital of Valletta before Muscat finally announced his own resignation, but not until January 12th. More sleaze will surely ooze out before then.
George Pendle is the author of four books, including Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons