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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
John Simpson

A Death in Malta by Paul Caruana Galizia review – courage under fire

Protesters hold pictures of Daphne Caruana Galizia outside prime minister Joseph Muscat's office, and call for his resignation
Protesters hold pictures of Daphne Caruana Galizia outside prime minister Joseph Muscat's office, and call for his resignation Photograph: Matthew Mirabelli/AFP/Getty Images

Journalism comes in many forms. Writing puffs about TV presenters is journalism. So is outing hapless celebrities over their sex lives, or researching long-form pieces about the future of the NHS. And so is sacrificing your life to warn people that their country has been taken over by gangsters. Daphne Caruana Galizia was this sort of journalist: one of the most courageous and outspoken people of our age. Here’s one of the last things she ever wrote about the Maltese government, in October 2017: “Do your worst, you bastards, until the only option left to you is to take out a contract on my life.”

At the very moment when Daphne Caruana Galizia pressed “send” on these words, a contract had indeed been taken out on her life, and her murderers were searching for ways to kill her. Finally they managed to plant 400g of TNT under the seat of her car. One of the gang, from a boat offshore, watched her drive down the seaside road near her house. Then he sent the phone message “#REL1=ON”, which ignited the bomb. Newspaper reports at the time said Daphne died instantly. If only: an eyewitness said she was screaming for several seconds before the car’s petrol tank exploded. A few minutes later her son Matthew, racing out to see what had happened, found the ground around him covered with bits of her body.

Why was she killed? For years Caruana Galizia had been uncovering details of egregious criminality by people in the Maltese government and their sidekicks on a scale that paralleled the ’Ndrangheta, the Camorra or Cosa Nostra – except that these people governed an EU state. If you were a Libyan warlord or an Azerbaijani arms dealer, you could pay money to Malta and get a fast-tracked EU passport which gave you easy passage to anywhere in the world. The daily revelations on Daphne’s blog and in her newspaper articles frightened Malta’s politicians, and they suspected that even worse things were likely to come out. When, at last, a panel of Maltese judges conducted an inquiry into Daphne’s death, they came up with this finding: Malta, they said, had been “moving towards a situation which could be qualified as a mafia state. It was the journalist’s assassination that put a brake on this predicted disaster.” Daphne sacrificed her life to save her country.

Who were the killers? One of them, Vincent Muscat, cooperated with the prosecution, and uncovered the full story. Two brothers, George “the Chinese” Degiorgio and Alfred “the Bean” Degiorgio, were tried, eventually pleaded guilty, and got 40 years. Several others were charged and will be tried soon. So will Yorgen Fenech, a businessman who headed a property and development company, the Tumas Group, and who has pleaded not guilty and denied responsibility for the killing. He was also a director of ElectroGas Malta, and owned an international company called 17 Black. Daphne wrote a great deal about 17 Black. In 2016, the year before she was murdered, it featured prominently in the Panama Papers: 11m leaked documents revealing a vast web of corruption around the world. Fenech was described in the press as “a businessman with government links”. I’ll say: he was a close associate of the then prime minister’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri. Later, Fenech openly accused Schembri of masterminding Caruana Galizia’s murder. Schembri has denied criminal wrongdoing.

Malta’s prime minister at the time was Joseph Muscat, a second-rate, ingratiating politician in his 40s. After Daphne died there were unprecedented public protests, and Muscat, Schembri’s boss and Fenech’s friend, resigned as prime minister and left politics altogether. He now lives quietly in retirement, having commented that the inquiry “unequivocally states that I was in no way implicated in the murder”. And what about his party’s many supporters, one of whom wrote on Facebook after her murder, “Fuck her blood. Let her burn in hell”? They’re silent and abashed now.

Daphne’s son Paul has written a superbly honest and very painful account of all this. Like her, he didn’t start out as a journalist, but, also like her and his brother Matthew, he became a highly effective reporter. His fine, natural, relaxed style shows Daphne as a living woman – delightful, quirky, far from perfect, increasingly affected by the things she wrote about and the danger she faced, and utterly magnificent: a hero who willingly gave her life for her profession and her country. For a long time, the Maltese were bemused by Daphne’s revelations or felt helpless to do anything about them. Her murder changed all that. Every day, people would put flowers and photos of her at an unofficial memorial in the centre of Valletta; every night the authorities would send in street cleaners to sweep it all away. And then, of course, what Daphne had said turned out to be true. The government was indeed irredeemably corrupt. Now Paul Caruana Galizia has given his mother a new and even more lasting monument: a book that is unforgettable, beautifully written, and deeply honest.

• A Death in Malta: An Assassination and a Family’s Quest for Justice by Paul Caruana Galizia is published by Cornerstone (£18.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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