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How a journalist's murder haunts Malta's ruling elite

Two years after the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, Malta's political class have found themselves entangled in the murder investigation. DW sits down with her family and EU lawmakers in search of justice.

Malta is reaching a boiling point.

The arrest of Yorgen Fenech — one of the country's richest and most influential men — for his alleged involvement in journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia's murder saw the island nation's half-million people confront an unprecedented political crisis that reaches the highest levels of government.

At a court hearing, Fenech, who has been accused of being the mastermind behind the car bomb attack, implicated Keith Schembri, the prime minister's chief of staff and closest aide. Schembri resigned last week and was brought in for questioning by police. He has denied any wrongdoing — but the fallout was such that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat announced he plans to step down in January.

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Read moreMalta: Journalist's murder has 'seriously damaged' relations with EU

Protesters demanding justice gather outside parliament almost daily. Each afternoon, authorities place barricades along the roads that lead to the limestone building, juxtaposing Valletta's medieval walls. The three streets that come to an end at parliament are flooded with people of all ages, while hundreds of tourists squeezed through, wondering why large crowds are gathered.

Yet protesters are angry and determined to stay until the government changes. Some threw eggs at MPs, others threw fake €5,000 bills. 

"We will keep on coming here until he [Joseph Muscat] leaves," says Joey, who protests almost daily. "He said he will resign — but in January. This is not enough. We will keep on coming. Everyone knows that he and his closest aides are involved."

"In my 30 years of age, I have never seen something like this in the country. I know there was unrest in the past, in the '80s, but I have never witnessed something like this," says Joey.

He is not alone. 

Those who gather outside parliament are of all ages, from young teenagers to the elderly holding placards emblazoned with the word "mafia," to LGBT+ activists protesting while holding the iconic flags. Protesters here say Muscat has turned the country into a power-hungry, mafia-controlled state. Caruana Galizia's murder is their proof. 

Corinne Vella at memorial for Daphne Caruana Galizia (DW/T. Tosidis)

Daphne's sister Corinne Vella tells DW she is suspicious of Muscat's intention to resign

A shocking day

Caruana Galizia, an outspoken and well-known Maltese journalist, started looking into the Panama Papers leaks in 2013 and eventually uncovered offshore companies connected to Malta's business and political world. Her anti-corruption career, partly as an opinion writer interested in politics, had led her to one of the most important investigative projects in Europe. Her sister, Corinne Vella, says she faced plenty of threats. 

"Threats come in many forms and are not necessarily threats to life," Vella tells DW. 

When Caruana Galizia began uncovering high-level corruption in the country, she was slapped with both libel and defamation lawsuits that increased dramatically the final year of her life. What was most striking was the number of lawsuits lodged by those within Malta's ruling Labor Party, with the tally reaching at least 35 cases, according to her family. 

Caruana Galizia was assassinated by a car bomb in October 2017. 

"Daphne's murder is not a murder of a person, it's about people's right to know. There are a lot of things represented in the murder of a journalist. It's not about us. Your right to know has been taken away. That gives advantage to people who want to take more of your rights: your right to life, your right to know, even your right to move freely," says Vella.

Vella believes that even though the protests have played an instrumental role in recent political developments, there has not yet been enough heat on the prime minister himself — but led to other forms of pressure within his Cabinet and the Labor Party. She remains unconvinced that the prime minister will resign despite the announcement, as Muscat has not given a specific date to step down. 

At the same time, Vella feels that the Maltese leader is not willing to assume any responsibility related to her sister's murder. That Muscat has ducked asking for a public inquiry into the murder, for Vella, indicates exactly that.

"One thing that has been really important to us is to have a public inquiry of Daphne's murder. That's something that our prime minister should have done from day one, as it's entirely in his power to do it. It's the one thing that a prime minister can do. He didn't. A public inquiry will finally begin next Friday but that's entirely due to the efforts of my nephews and brother-in-law," she says.

The European Parliament has also been active concerning the developments of her sister's case.

Stelios Koulogou and Marianna Karakoulaki in Valletta, Malta (DW/T. Tosidis)

MEP Stelios Koulogou tells DW about his meeting with Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat

EU pressure

A European delegation chaired by Dutch MEP Sophie In't Veld included EU lawmakers from each political group, who traveled to Malta this week to discuss the murder case of Caruana Galizia and rule of law in the country.

One item on the agenda was a meeting with Muscat.

"When asked about the involvement of his chief of staff in the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the prime minister replied that he has no clue. However, a legitimate question to ask is: How can this be possible, when usually a prime minister's chief of staff is their most trusted aide," says Stelios Kouloglou, one of the MEPs in the delegation. 

The EU delegation also met with Caruana Galizia's sons and husband for closed-door talks. 

"The EU parliament cannot decide what a prime minister will do, but it is in a position to take a stand because, in effect, it represents the European people," Vella tells DW.

'Corruption in the EU'

Caruana Galizia's murder, along with the murder of Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak, shook the core of the European Union. The assassinations marked the first time in years that journalists in the bloc were killed for their corruption investigations, exposing gaps in the rule of law. 

"Those murders show the corruption in politics and economics in the European Union. Those murders are extremely important to be solved," says MEP Kouloglou.

"Both Caruana Galizia and Kuziak were independent journalists. And freelance journalists are in more vulnerable positions than others," he continues.

The European Union thought European legislation could protect freelance journalists, especially when it comes to dealing with court cases, and, according to Kouloglou, they are trying to push for further legislation.

"The political situation in Malta impacts the European Union because it is connected to the freedom of journalists, the constant control of the media as well as great financial scandals and corruption."

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