Execution of a controversial, bold and irreverent Maltese journalist

LONG READ | Daphne Caruana Galizia elicited mixed feelings in her admirers, detractors and casual observers: a mercurial muck-raker, intelligent observer of society and politics, and an influential writer. But her cruel murder has torn us apart

Daphne Caruana Galizia
Daphne Caruana Galizia

She was an indomitable force of nature. Of that, there was no doubt. Her ‘Running Commentary’ blog, set up in the dying hours of the 2008 election that the Nationalists nearly lost, grew its own muscle, taking her to the heights of the Panama Papers in 2016. Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Sliema thoroughbred whose allegiance to the Nationalist Party was branded back in the turbulent 1980s, became her own brand of news. The political establishment, mostly Labour, disliked her merciless mockery and probing; the Nationalist establishment revered her.

Her blog was a heady soup of journalistic brazenness. The muckraking was the springboard for mainstream media to follow suit. Her fearlessness in dealing with adversaries made her a magnet for information, and then the scoops came. After the Dalligate saga, she revealed John Dalli’s misadventure in the Bahamas; she single-handedly brought down an acting police commissioner, Ray Zammit, after an inquiry was launched into the role of the Zammit family in the Gaffarena murder investigation; on Panama, she drip-fed the allegations a month ahead of schedule; and of course, there was Egrant – yet another mystery, although one now under the spotlight of a magistrate.

But the good stuff was bookended by gossip and unnecessary vitriol, often addressed to targets that had little to do with public life or politics. Facebook, where she often went ‘bogan’-hunting, was where a Labour flag-waver could end up earning a top spot in her blog. It was part-gossip, part-Private Eye, part-poison pen invective. The scattergun approach sealed her reputation for being nasty. Journalists too, those not favoured by the PN, were ideal subjects for her readers: salacious or private moments would meet a final destination on her blog. Labour apologists and partisans wanted her tried for the temerity of causing hurt or offence. Defamation suits, the first course of action for the powerful seeking to temper her or influence the public’s impression of infallibility, eventually fell flat.

A world view forged in the 1980s

Dom Mintoff's administration in the 1970s and 1980s shaped Caruana Galizia's view
Dom Mintoff's administration in the 1970s and 1980s shaped Caruana Galizia's view

Like many Maltese journalists her age, Caruana Galizia made her bones in the 1990s as an uncompromising columnist, first for The Times of Malta and then for the Malta Independent. Daphne became a bye-word for the well-written column, and level-headed outrage at political mediocrity and banality, but more importantly, a column that also propped up the Nationalist government’s legitimacy.

For it was the 1980s that also shaped the world-view of Caruana Galizia, when the Mintoff administration made little effort at containing the thuggery of both partisan mobs and henchmen, and corrupt ministers like Lorry Sant. “We took state oppression and violence for granted in much the same way that the Chinese do, that Libyans did at the time. We had absolutely no idea what it meant to live in a western democracy because we had not grown up in one and were young enough to have scant memory of pre-1971 years,” she once wrote.

Like this newspaper’s founder, she was at the environmental protest in Valletta organised by Żgħażgħ Għall-Ambjent when demonstrators standing up against environmental degradation were attacked by partisan thugs. “There were people there who really needed to see a doctor, but none of them wanted to go to the polyclinic because in those days, you could trust nobody to do with the government if they thought it might be used as evidence against the government.”

One of the men who led that attack was Lorry Sant’s henchman Piju Camilleri. “We were demonstrating against outrageous building development which he, among others, was carrying out with the sanction and cooperation (if not actual involvement) of Works Minister Lorry Sant.”

Lorry Sant and Piju Camilleri of course were not small bit-players in the Labour administration of the 1980s. This enduring legacy was stained by the disappearance of Lino Cauchi on the eve of the 1981 election, an accountant privy to their land deals, whose remains were found three years later. His briefcase, thought to carry incriminating documents, was found empty.

This was the Labour against which Daphne Caruana Galizia often inveighed. Not just the incompetence of the Alfred Sant administration when it floundered two years into power after freezing EU membership. Even with Joseph Muscat’s leadership, she spoke of the remnants of the 1980s appearing by his side – Karmenu Vella, and Alex Sceberras Trigona, both former ministers, or Anglu Farrugia, a former police inspector at that time – and reeled back in horror.

History tarnished Labour and voters kept the party out of power for over two decades. But when inertia struck the Nationalist administration, Daphne Caruana Galizia was also ready to take down critics and activists who were out of favour with that administration.

In one blogpost she describes what could only be her dislike at seeing the environmental activist Astrid Vella – humorously dubbed “the tinpot Boadicea of Building Controls” – in conversation with Alex Sceberras Trigona and his wife at a Bastille Day party at the French ambassador’s residence: “I thought to myself: oh blessed irony. What a country. Or more to the point, what people.” This was a running narrative in her blogs: the partisan divide between the heirs of Mintoffian workerism, and the visionaries that propelled Nationalist democracy and EU membership forward. That red line seemed to pervade her view of politics.

Daphne joins the blogosphere

Daphne Caruana Galizia started her blog in 2008
Daphne Caruana Galizia started her blog in 2008

In 2008, Running Commentary came onto the Maltese blogosphere. It was the first of elections where the Internet was meekly turning up as a new opinion-maker, with candidates sporting Facebook and Hi5 profile accounts. It was Lawrence Gonzi’s election to lose. Alfred Sant’s ace was a land-use scandal targeting Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando with alleged trading in influence, to have his Mistra fields cleared for planning approval and turned into an open-air disco for his lessee. The scandal was almost lethal, allowing Gonzi to win re-election with just 1,500 votes and a one-seat majority.

In her first outing online, she took Sant to task, the far-rightist Norman Lowell, and even the Greens for talking about coalition governments. “Like the members of a cult, AD are working at persuading the gullible, through the use of jargon and emotive ideals, that (1) a coalition government is possible, and (2) it is desirable, rather than the kind of necessary evil that countries without strong parties must cope with.”

When AD called for Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando’s resignation, she brushed it off with ease. “The man doesn’t have a ministerial position. He is not even a parliamentary secretary or the chairman of a board. He is an MP, and the only people to whom he is answerable in that parliamentary seat are the ones who put him there, i.e. those who voted for him.”

When after victory, the PN gave Pullicino Orlando the cold shoulder, so did she. She had been his champion in the run-up to election. But when the PN decided somebody was a liability, Daphne would give that discomfort a voice. It was with this same brush that PN critics were painted, environmentalists, third-party pretenders, and journalists.

Her friendship with the influential Richard Cachia Caruana, cemented the impression of her role as the party’s unofficial media. Even he was the victim of an attempted assassination in 1994. From her columns, she derided the witness Nicholas Jensen, who recanted on an earlier testimony to say he saw Joseph Fenech aka 'il-Hafi' on the scene of the crime in Mdina, not Charles Attard 'iż-Żambi' - a man whose defence counsel at one point was Adrian Delia. Żeppi l-Hafi, a PN heavy from the 1980s, had been given a presidential pardon by then PM Eddie Fenech Adami to say the RCC hit was commissioned by convicted trafficker Meinrad Calleja. It was the official line. Calleja was later acquitted of the murder charge.

Then, ‘Plategate’ happened in 2010. At a dinner party at the house of Consuelo Scerri Herrera, sister of the Labour MP José Herrera, the magistrate had offered up a salacious bit of gossip. The press had got wind of a police report filed by Caruana Galizia’s husband over a domestic incident that would have involved a volley of plates. Scerri Herrera’s guests included the PBS presenter Lou Bondì and partner Rachel Attard, who later transmitted the details to Caruana Galizia.

She responded mercilessly. She took to task Scerri Herrera and her companion Robert Musumeci, a PN mayor; she took to task this newspaper’s owners (the story was actually broken by the GWU newspaper l-orizzont), for having pried into her family affairs. Plategate unleashed a merciless volley of blogs that were illustrated with the photos of the magistrate’s birthday party posted on Facebook by her daughter: too much fun, too many influential people, and too many PN types who were not toeing that important red line of partisan divide.

Scerri Herrera responded with libel suits which she later retracted. Caruana Galizia unearthed juicy exposés of her former friend’s personal life, and that information would ultimately result in a reprimand – many years later – from the judiciary’s watchdog.

Daphne Caruana Galizia 'celebrated' Mintoff's death in 2012
Daphne Caruana Galizia 'celebrated' Mintoff's death in 2012

It was a messy skirmish that turned journalists and the powerful into objects of mockery. Running Commentary was no longer a showcase of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s columns. It was a new title for the country’s embarrassing secrets. And Daphne took no hostages. Years in the industry as a print newspaper columnist, a publicist for business groups, or as an entrepreneurial magazine publisher, did not blunt her sharp focus when it came to adversaries or those in power she selected to bring to account.

Her critics despised her irreverence and selectivity, but it was par for the course when talking about Daphne Caruana Galizia. When Dom Mintoff died in 2012, true to herself she refused to fall in step with a prevailing mindset to pay tribute to such a divisive figure.

“It’s perfectly possible to be Christian towards the foul dead without upsetting the living victims or insulting the memory of those who died before their oppressor did…

“Perhaps the most upsetting words were spoken by Eddie Fenech Adami, who came into being and into his own as leader of the Opposition precisely as a visceral response, in terms of the power of good, to what was the power of evil in the shape of Mintoff’s government…

“A bad man has died. There is nothing good to be said. You’re giving him a state funeral because he gave one to George Borg Olivier in 1980. Leave it at that, and cut the cant.”

But then Caruana Galizia was also pushing boundaries which her critics could not understand.

Her invective was ultimately the logical extreme of everyone’s right for freedom of expression. Talking ill of Dom Mintoff even after his death was an example of the culmination of that cherished freedom granted by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In that way she was a ‘Charlie Hebdo’. The soubriquets for those she wrote about (Botox Jeff for Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando or Herr Flick for Leo Brincat) slipped easily into the jargon of her followers.

But there were those other moments. A person snapped with a Labour Party official or candidate, maybe having said something stupid on Facebook, or the proverbial chav (at one point, she almost serialized Facebook photos of one particular Qormi family whose guilt was to have been Labour flag-waving voters), would earn rebuke on her blog. It was entertainment by punching down, not journalism.

Daphne Caruana Galizia leaving the law courts with her lawyer Joe Zammit Maempel
Daphne Caruana Galizia leaving the law courts with her lawyer Joe Zammit Maempel

That’s what people resented, the way she could irresponsibly shift from high-minded opinion and investigative journalism, to tabloid trash. She could disregard journalistic ethics, causing unnecessary pain to those not in the public eye, for no public interest. Countless private citizens, journalists and family members of political actors, were equally harassed and mocked on matters not entirely related to any public interest except for their association with Labour.

Her critics denigrated such excesses, defamation suits were filed. In one incident, a Labour mayor who stumbled into her at a Rabat festa, was charged with harassing her. Thick skin was needed when dealing with a Daphne Caruana Galizia blogpost. And Malta’s reading public was not inured to this kind of liberty, although secretly, many of her readers delighted in the daily schadenfreude.

I witnessed how Caruana Galizia’s gratuitous non-stories could bring great anxiety to colleagues, unable to bring themselves to face a day of work; it made private individuals anxious by thrusting them into a public spotlight they neither asked nor yearned for, simply by guilt of association with an intended target; family relatives and children not associated with any act of public policy, were rubbished intentionally as the quickest way of getting at the intended target.

Still. Much of this scattergun work seemed to be book-ended by great scoops. The “one-woman WikiLeaks” – or if you were on the other side, the one-woman Breitbart – was about to take shape.

With the Labour Party back in power in 2013, Caruana Galizia took her writing to new heights
With the Labour Party back in power in 2013, Caruana Galizia took her writing to new heights

Joseph Muscat becomes Prime Minister

Labour’s election took Daphne Caruana Galizia to new heights, even as this newspaper lampooned her in an editorial cartoon as the figure of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, to illustrate her shock at the scale of the electoral loss suffered by Lawrence Gonzi to Joseph Muscat.

The new Nationalist Opposition had been confounded by an unprecedented 36,000-vote loss, and now Labour had a nine-seat majority. Caruana Galizia was incessant in taking Labour to task. This time, she carved herself a new niche, with her eagle-eyed approach to the news applied to keeping the Labour government in check. The PN, for some time having lost the position of influence it had held in the traditional media, could depend on Caruana Galizia as an unofficial party organ.

Caruana Galizia’s campaign was unstinting. Labour, she insisted, was not fit to be in government. Soon, the slip-ups of the newbie administration seemed to fit her narrative although hers was a voice also compromised by partisanship.

Early on, it was revealing that Labour intended to create a national money-spinner by selling off passports. At times, she would blog further on the scoops and newspaper reports on government maladministration, giving a necessary second spin on the facts.

Some reports became the subject of government inquiries: when she revealed a family link between acting commissioner of police Ray Zammit and the Gaffarena family, she painted the picture of a botched murder investigation that was augmented by a business relationship. The inquiry revealed a shocking scale of intimacy between police officers and businessmen. That Ray Zammit, a discredited acting police chief who lost his job after the Sheehan shooting inquiry, was retained to helm the new government agency for local wardens, added insult to injury.

Caruana Galizia's revelations preceded Panama Papers by weeks
Caruana Galizia's revelations preceded Panama Papers by weeks

Panama Papers

For an entire year, the ICIJ was busy working on one of the greatest journalist stories ever unearthed. Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose son was working with the ICIJ at the time, was already drip-feeding the big story with an enigmatic photo of a lamb… a reference to the New Zealand trust that had been set up by Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri to act as a conduit for their Panama offshore companies.

When Konrad Mizzi moved in to declare his trust in a bid to pre-empt what Caruana Galizia already knew too well, the Panama Papers broke in Malta a month ahead of schedule. Before the Panama Papers broke internationally, she had revealed that Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri had set up their offshore companies right after Labour’s election; and that Schembri used offshore companies in his private affairs. It was a story that almost brought Labour to its knees, with the ICIJ’s partners in Malta ramping up the pressure and revealing the extent to which Mizzi and Schembri were searching for international bank accounts for their planned ventures.

When she appeared in the European Parliament’s PANA committee, I remember distinctly the one piece of testimony that stuck in my mind. It was a simple observation. For had it not been for the Panama Papers, much of the administration’s affairs would have moved on unquestioned and untouched, with the public none the wiser about the government’s privatization of state hospitals and energy deals.

The Egrant story implicating Joseph Muscat's wife forced the Prime Minister to call an early election
The Egrant story implicating Joseph Muscat's wife forced the Prime Minister to call an early election

It was a pithy observation, for it fuelled the narrative of the corrupt Labour administration.

A year later, Caruana Galizia claimed that a Labour minister, the party deputy leader, had been in a German brothel during official business. She had no hard evidence except for her insistence that somebody witnessed him inside the brothel. Chris Cardona sued for libel. Caruana Galizia’s lawyers demanded his geolocation data. A case of the tail wagging the dog, but this episode highlighted the influence Caruana Galizia had now acquired when she would publish a story. Those who called for evidence before publication were dismissed as wet blankets.

And then came Egrant. It was the third Panama company set up by Mossack Fonseca’s agents in Malta, alongside Keith Schembri’s and Konrad Mizzi’s. Caruana Galizia was now claiming that a sacked Russian employee had seen a declaration of trust showing Egrant was owned by Joseph Muscat’s wife; and that the daughter of Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev had a million dollars wired from Dubai to a Pilatus bank account.

Muscat requested a magisterial inquiry. The declaration of trust was never made public. The Nationalist leadership took the allegations to town, and with that the slew of leaks from the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit of its site visits to Pilatus, with claims of kickbacks paid for the sale of passports by Nexia BT’s Brian Tonna, to Keith Schembri, the PM’s chief of staff; and an unfinished inquiry into a Dubai company called 17 Back, ostensibly set up by the operators of the LNG supplier in Malta, again with links to Mizzi and Schembri.

PN leader Adrian Delia also came in for strong criticism from Caruana Galizia
PN leader Adrian Delia also came in for strong criticism from Caruana Galizia

Daphne Caruana Galizia was a prime mover of the allegations. With the Opposition in full attack mode, Joseph Muscat moved to call a snap election, claiming that PN leader Simon Busuttil was sowing instability in the country. “He took his people out on a national protest on the strength of a lie, and made an appeal to the forces of law and order to take some sort of action against me, or carry out an act of disobedience… there were moments where my wife and I were listening to a lie that was intended at destroying my career and bringing instability in the country,” Muscat said.

Labour was returned to power with a higher majority than in 2013. Muscat later said Caruana Galizia’s actions were “a deliberate conflation of lies with a speck of truth.” Caruana Galizia’s fans disagree, for they see in Muscat a liar; ask a Muscat follower, and they will say the feeling is mutual. The ‘WikiLeaks’ were tainted by a lot of personal repartees that stung in a small society where shame was easily brought about by someone with an exceptional writing style.

In the last months, when the new PN leader Adrian Delia announced his bid for the leadership, she got wind of his past activities as a lawyer operating an offshore client account for the Maltese owner of several Soho properties that were involved in a prostitution racket. Even with the party she rooted for at its lowest ebb, she was adamant that Delia does not become leader because he was not suited for the role. Delia replied with five libel suits. He did not file any against MaltaToday, which followed the story when it received information of its own and confirmed the allegations.

What had happened to Caruana Galizia “to turn against her own”?

'Crooks everywhere' was her last quip before being assassinated in a powerful car bomb
'Crooks everywhere' was her last quip before being assassinated in a powerful car bomb

It was a question that merited a proper reply. It wasn’t simply Caruana Galizia writing without fear or favour. It was Caruana Galizia channelling the soul of the party whose tradition, as she probably saw it, was the one instilled by Eddie Fenech Adami – the man who best illustrated the antidote to Mintoffian thuggery. In this sense, it was this principle which best captured how she saw that red line of the partisan divide. And Delia, to her, was not fit to lead Fenech Adami’s party, having been so carefully bequeathed to his worthy successors.

Daphne spoke of threats too at this point. "Right now I’m getting messages from members of Adrian Delia’s rabble, saying – with no punctuation except a lot of exclamation marks at the end – that I’m finished, RIP, take a cyanide pill, and other remarks involving body parts which I have long been accustomed to from Labour supporters."

A cruel end

For years, the anthropology graduate would always turn to a classic trope in the field – amoral familism – to explain what she felt was wrong with the country.

“It’s the reason people in Malta use their vote as currency and do not think in terms of the common good or choosing the right government, but in terms of spiting/rewarding, getting/preventing others from getting. It is also the reason why even monied and supposedly educated individuals are not embarrassed – rather, they are proud because they think it is a heroic act and that it is perfectly normal and civilised – to talk openly about not voting for this or that party, or not voting at all, on the basis of personal matters and what they wish to obtain personally (or prevent others from obtaining).”

For her, this reasoning was completely unacceptable in a civilised democracy, seeing it completely at odds with other more developed European societies. She said it in 2013, and in 2017, those electoral turning points that sent the Nationalist Party into disarray.

In her last blogpost, she signed off with a disconcerting quip on the Panama inquiry playing out in the Maltese courts. “Crooks everywhere.”

That execution, that heinous act of murder, employing all the aesthetic of Mafia-style assassination, tore everyone apart. It was an attack on democracy, on the fourth estate, on the role journalists play in keeping people to account, an attack on a denigrated profession. Caruana Galizia must have yet again been on the cusp of something big.