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
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
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.
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.