The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When a crusading Maltese journalist was murdered, her sons vowed justice. Almost miraculously, it’s happening.

People gather at the Great Siege Square in Malta calling for the resignation of Joseph Muscat following the arrest of one of the country's most prominent businessmen as part of the investigation into the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Muscat resigned on Sunday.
People gather at the Great Siege Square in Malta calling for the resignation of Joseph Muscat following the arrest of one of the country's most prominent businessmen as part of the investigation into the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Muscat resigned on Sunday. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

In a life that was anything but ordinary, this seemed a routine enough moment.

Daphne Caruana Galizia climbed into the rented gray Peugeot parked outside her home on Oct. 16, 2017, headed for the bank.

Moments later, a car bomb went off, killing the 53-year-old crusading journalist who had reported on the apparently corrupt activities of powerful figures in her island nation of Malta — helping to expose illicit businesses tied to the Panama Papers investigations.

In her final blog post, published the day she died, she signed off: “There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate.”

Since then, her three sons have relentlessly sought justice.

But when Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, made the surprise announcement Sunday that he would resign in connection with the government’s mishandling of the case, there was little jubilation in the family.

“At most, I would say a sense of relief,” the eldest son, Matthew, 33, said in a phone interview Monday.

It was Matthew who heard the bomb go off and ran outside the family home to find fire and clouds of smoke and, terribly, pieces of his mother’s flesh strewn among the car parts.

But that relief is mixed with dissatisfaction that the prime minister says he’ll stay in office for another month, allowing him to manipulate and cover up — or so the family fears.

“He can’t serve even another day as prime minister,” Caruana Galizia told me in a steely tone.

The family, understandably, is not yet satisfied — but for press advocates around the world, the developments are stunningly positive, because they suggest a rare accountability taking shape.

“This is an incredible moment and achievement,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

This year alone, 21 journalists have been killed around the world — 10 of them murdered. And 870 journalists have been murdered since 1992, according to CPJ.

Perhaps the most notorious of these killings was that of Jamal Khashoggi, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post who was brutally murdered at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last year.

Almost always, Simon told me, nothing happens: The killers go free, if they are identified at all.

“The level of impunity is close to 90 percent,” Simon said.

In those extraordinary situations involving some justice, one element is common: A deeply involved family.

And so it is in the case of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

“This family has been so relentless and such an inspiration, pushing every lever and never resting,” Simon said.

The brothers — Matthew, Andrew and Paul — are 33, 32, and 31 years old, respectively; their father, Peter, has been actively involved, too.

One of the most important levers they pulled was a visit, by all three brothers, to Strasbourg, the seat of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in northeast France, where they petitioned that international organization — devoted to human rights — to investigate their mother’s death.

The result was the appointment of a special rapporteur, the Netherlands’ Pieter Omtzigt, who told me about his initial meeting with the brothers.

“I was impressed by their resilience, their determination and their belief that something was wrong in Malta beyond what happened with their mother’s assassination,” Omtzigt said.

And that, he said, proved entirely true, as his report made clear: “There is a very large problem with the rule of law, with checks and balances, and particularly with the all-powerful prime minister.”

The report, overwhelmingly approved by the council, called for an independent public inquiry — and that is now taking place.

Matthew Caruana Galizia (a former software expert and now an investigative journalist himself, as is brother Paul) also credits the Daphne Project: a multinational group of journalists around the world who banded together to continue his mother’s work and investigate the circumstances of her death. Reuters and the Guardian, among others, have done important work.

“If it weren’t for them, I don’t know if we’d be here today,” he said.

The investigation took major steps forward in recent weeks with the arrest of a prominent Maltese businessman, Yorgen Fenech, and the resignation of a political ally to the prime minister.

Simon, of CPJ, told me that reporters like Caruana Galizia are particularly vulnerable. He calls them “vanguard journalists” because they often are solo practitioners, not part of a pack, and often have uniquely deep networks of sources.

“These are journalists whose heads are above the parapet,” he said. “The idea is that if you kill them, you can stop the story dead. That’s what Daphne represented. There seemed to be no one to replace her.”

Thankfully, it hasn’t worked out that way.

Through the efforts of an international group of journalists and human rights advocates, something approaching accountability is happening in Malta — prompted by the relentless dedication of three devoted sons.

Daphne Caruana Galizia no doubt will be remembered as a muckraking journalist.

But based on the evidence, that’s not all. She must have been a remarkable mother, too.

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