The Fraud Examiner

Justice for Journalist Murdered While Investigating Corruption

Mason Wilder, CFE
Research Specialist, Association of Certified Fraud Examiners                                 

In late February, a murder suspect’s plea reversal and confession brought attention back to the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, the posthumous recipient of the ACFE’s Guardian Award in 2020. Vincent Muscat, one of the three men suspected of actually carrying out the car bombing that killed Galizia, changed his plea to guilty and issued an official confession, which led to an additional three arrests and prompted Malta’s national police chief to declare that every person involved in the 2017 murder had been apprehended. In light of these recent developments, taking a moment to revisit Galizia’s reporting, her death, the investigation and its implications brings her legacy into a clearer focus.


Muckraking in Malta

After establishing a career in journalism that included roles with several Maltese newspapers and magazines, Galizia launched a personal blog titled Running Commentary, where she focused on investigative journalism and commentary about Maltese politics, corruption and current affairs. The blog became extremely popular, with page views ultimately exceeding the combined circulation of Malta’s most popular newspapers. This popularity also carried consequences — sporadic incidents of violent intimidation involving damage to property, injury to pets, lawsuits alleging libel, innumerable threats in various forms and being detained briefly for posting videos mocking Joseph Muscat on the eve of his election as prime minister in 2013.

One of the most impactful stories Galizia wrote involved Maltese politicians or their family members using foreign trusts and corporations in New Zealand and Panama, respectively, to manage assets, and was published months before the Panama Papers confirmed her reporting.

Another theme of her investigations she was developing at the time of her death was Malta’s Individual Investment Program (IIP), known less formally as a Golden Visa program, in which foreigners could obtain legal residency, and in some cases citizenship, in return for a substantial investment in the island nation. Upon receiving legal residency or citizenship, IIP participants could apply for a Maltese passport, which would provide them visa-free access to the European Union and many other countries.

Galizia’s reporting focused on the firm contracted by the government to design and implement the IIP program, Henley & Partners, and its ties to Maltese officials in the country’s Labour Party and Prime Minister Muscat’s administration. She believed these ties included kickbacks and bribes funneled through secretive offshore companies such as those she had already identified in her reporting. An offshore company Galizia specifically mentioned in one of her final blog posts, 17 Black, went on to become a fixture in the aftermath of her murder.


Silenced by a car bomb

On October 16, 2017, Galizia made what would be her final post on Running Commentary in the afternoon. It featured a line that protesters and her supporters would echo for years: “There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate.” Shortly after publishing the blog, she left her home in Bidnija, located in the countryside about 25 minutes northwest of Valletta, Malta’s capital, to run some errands. Moments after she started up her leased Peugeot and began driving, an explosion destroyed the vehicle and took her life.

The fatal explosion was so powerful, it launched the vehicle over a wall and into a field — where it then took police investigators four days to collect all of the body parts and wreckage. Galizia’s murder immediately prompted an international outcry and protests in the capital demanding justice and decrying corruption and impunity in Malta. The investigation and prosecution of suspects allegedly involved with the murder continues to this day, although the confession of a primary suspect could mark the beginning of the saga’s end.


Years of investigation coming closer to an end

Within two months of Galizia’s murder, authorities rounded up 10 suspects and ultimately charged three of them with her murder. The three suspects included Vincent Muscat, of no relation to former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, and brothers George and Alfred Degiorgio, who allegedly spied on Galizia, then placed and detonated the bomb that took her life. All three originally pleaded not guilty and have remained in prison since.

Authorities in Malta eventually arrested a number of other suspects, and the case received a major breakthrough when a taxi driver named Melvin Theuma confessed in late 2019 to serving as a liaison between Muscat, the Degiorgio brothers, and a wealthy Maltese businessman he alleged masterminded the killing: Yorgen Fenech.

Although Fenech did not feature prominently in Galizia’s reporting by name, he was ultimately identified as the owner of 17 Black, a company she did identify in connection with allegations of kickback and bribery payments to Maltese politicians. Fenech’s arrest on charges of masterminding the killing occurred as he was attempting to flee Malta for Italy on his yacht after allegedly being tipped off by an aid of then-Prime Minister Muscat. Following his arrest, Fenech pleaded not guilty, attempted to secure an official pardon in return for testimony against others, and repeatedly petitioned to be released from detention on bail but has been rebuffed each time. Fenech’s legal proceedings are scheduled to continue later this month.

On February 23, Muscat changed his plea to guilty and offered a confession as part of a plea deal that resulted in a 15-year prison sentence. That confession not only corroborated Theuma’s prior testimony implicating Fenech, but immediately led to the arrests of another set of brothers, Adrian and Robert Agius, and Jamie Vella, who allegedly supplied the fatal car bomb.

According to Muscat, he and the Degiorgio brothers accepted a deal to assassinate Galizia in return for 150,000 euros, and spent days spying on her before carrying out the contract killing. Muscat claims he and the Degiorgio originally planned to shoot her in her home, but instead purchased a sophisticated explosive device with an incorporated SIM card that would detonate upon receiving a specific SMS message.

Although this latest round of arrests did prompt the announcement by Malta’s national police chief that all suspects involved in Galizia’s death had now been apprehended, current prime minister Robert Abela stated that the investigation will continue. Further investigation will likely seek to tie up any loose ends involving Maltese politicians in a cover-up of the crime and a definitive motive for the killing.


Galizia’s legacy

The horrific and tragic murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia set into motion a series of events which caused impacts that appropriately complement the career of a reporter who demonstrated such a strong commitment to rooting out and exposing corruption. Most prominently, the aftermath of her killing ultimately led to the resignation of Joseph Muscat and several aides, who Galizia regularly targeted in her writing, in 2019.

Even more in line with Daphne’s mission as a reporter and commentator is “The Daphne Project,” launched after her death to continue her work. The organization includes 45 journalists at 18 global news organizations in 15 countries who have reported on corruption involving connections between the Maltese Pilatus bank, Azerbaijani politicians, Maltese politicians, Italian organized crime and Libyan oil smugglers. That reporting led to the bank being shut down in 2018.

Her legacy will of course extend beyond ridding Malta of Muscat and other corrupt cronies and the establishment of The Daphne Project. With any luck, the memory of Galizia, the work of The Daphne Project and the punishment of those who sought to silence her through violence will illustrate to aspiring investigative journalists just how much impact an individual can have on their country and the world beyond its borders.