After a journalist was assassinated, her sons found clues in her unfinished work that cracked the case and brought down the government.
By Ben TaubDecember 14, 2020
Daphne Caruana Galizia, Politico wrote, was a “one-woman WikiLeaks.” Her son Paul suspected that her murderers feared the completion of her latest investigation.Photograph by Gaia Squarci for The New Yorker
Daphne’s sons worried about her. She was fifty-three and lived in an old stone farmhouse on the edge of Bidnija, a hilltop hamlet on the island of Malta. From the dining-room table, where Daphne wrote, she could see the morning sunlight glisten on the Mediterranean. But she hadn’t been to the beach in four years. When she left the house, people spat at her, followed her, photographed her, and hurled insults and abuse. Once, when she was taking an afternoon walk in a nearby village, a former mayor gathered a mob and began chasing her. She took refuge in a monastery, where the villagers pounded on the heavy wooden doors. All over the island, there were people who were certain that they hated her but had never read a word she had written. They simply knew her as is-sahhara tal-Bidnija—the witch of Bidnija.
Beyond “this little rock,” as Daphne referred to Malta, she was known for her reporting, which exposed malfeasance and hypocrisy within the governing class. She had come to think of the country as fractured by time, with all the worst elements of globalization grafted onto a population that was otherwise stuck in the past. “Malta is 17 miles by nine and flooded with cocaine, corruption, and filthy money,” she wrote. Her blog, Running Commentary, laced deep investigations with withering taunts, and had an online readership as large as all of Malta’s newspapers combined. In late 2016, Politico Europe included Daphne—along with George Soros, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Sadiq Khan—on its list of “people who are shaping, shaking and stirring Europe.” She was “the blogging fury,” the list read, “a one-woman WikiLeaks, crusading against untransparency and corruption in Malta, an island nation famous for both.”
But her subjects were her neighbors—the Prime Minister lived just down the hill. In recent years, he and his Cabinet had sought to smother her with libel lawsuits. People in his office used their work computers to post cruel gossip about her, accompanied by unflattering photographs. There was little serious effort to refute Daphne’s reports—only to disdain her as an élitist, partisan fraud. (Her surname, Caruana Galizia, had become redundant—everyone knew her as Daphne.) “The greatest difficulties I encounter come from the fact that they have made me into what in effect is a national scapegoat,” she once said.
On the afternoon of October 16, 2017, Daphne prepared a plate of tomatoes and mozzarella for Matthew, her eldest son. He was thirty-one, a computer scientist and a journalist himself. An expert on shell companies, he had shared a Pulitzer Prize for the Panama Papers leak. He sometimes got so caught up in his work that he forgot to eat.
Daphne set down the plate and put on her shoes to go to the bank. Her husband, Peter, a lawyer, had left her a stack of blank checks with his signature. She could not access her own accounts: after she claimed that Malta’s economy minister had visited a brothel while on an official mission to Germany, he persuaded a court to freeze her assets.
Across the valley, a man peered at the house. He watched Daphne climb into her car, and called his brother, who was waiting on a boat just offshore. When she was partway down the hill, the man on the boat sent a text message: “REL 1 = ON.”
A local farmer heard a pop and a scream, and watched Daphne yank the emergency brake. Then the gas tank exploded, launching her car into a field. The boom resonated throughout Bidnija valley.
Matthew ran down the hill, barefoot, squinting in the afternoon sun. When he reached the fireball, he thought for a few seconds that the twisted chassis couldn’t be that of his mother’s car, because it was burning white, and hers was charcoal gray. But then Matthew saw the beginning of the license plate—QQZ—and circled the car, helpless, screaming, searching for his mother’s silhouette, his skin as hot as he could stand it.
“I don’t think she made it,” Matthew told Paul, his youngest brother, an academic in London, in a phone call later that afternoon. Andrew, the middle brother, who was a Maltese diplomat, walked out of the foreign-ministry building and never returned. Paul took the first flight home. During the descent, he could frame the entire island within the window. Somewhere in that vista were the men who had ordered the hit. For the first time in a decade, all three brothers slept in their childhood bedrooms.
Supporters of the government posted memes with images of champagne flutes and witches burning at the stake, and made explosion sounds when they saw Daphne’s family in public. “This isn’t like the troll factory in St. Petersburg,” Paul told me. “These are real people. These were her neighbors.”
Daphne’s sons carried her coffin, then left the island to regroup. They suspected that their mother’s murder had been arranged by someone who believed that, in Malta, it was less dangerous to assassinate a reporter than to let her complete her work. To kill to protect a secret—it was a crime as old as any. Somewhere in their mother’s files, they thought, there must be a series of clues.
When Daphne was growing up in Malta, there was only one brand of chocolate, one brand of toothpaste, one brand of bluejeans. After attaining independence from the United Kingdom, in September, 1964—a month after she was born—the island suffered a post-colonial hangover, dominated by a repressive socialist Labour Party. For thousands of years, the island’s language, culture, and architecture had been shaped by invasions from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Now, as the Maltese government distanced itself from the most recent colonial empire, it aligned with China, the Soviet Union, Libya, and North Korea.
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“You couldn’t talk about politics at school,” Daphne’s sister Corinne told Paul, after his mother’s death. “A classmate would go back and report to their parents what you were saying. And then your parents got into trouble. Your property would be expropriated, for instance, or you’d be seen as an enemy of the state.”
In the early eighties, Prime Minister Dom Mintoff, who had led the Labour Party for more than thirty years, announced that the country’s Catholic schools would be shut down. Daphne and Corinne weren’t religious, but they joined a protest across the harbor from the capital, Valletta. Daphne was arrested and strip-searched by the police. It bothered her that politicians spoke of themselves as public servants while demanding the kind of uncritical deference required by kings. When she was released from jail, she noted to her sister that the local newspapers were neglecting to cover the crisis.
Mintoff’s party lost power in 1987. The new government opened up Malta’s economy and applied to join the European Union. Daphne soon started writing for the Times of Malta. At twenty-five, with three young sons, she became the country’s first female columnist, and the first journalist to attach a name to her opinions. “And this thing was a double shock,” Daphne told a human-rights researcher, days before her death. “I used to have people actually telling me, ‘But does your husband write them for you? Does your father?’ ”
Daphne grew up reading British magazines; now she transposed their irreverence and humor to her considerably smaller island. Cocktail parties became uncomfortable and friendships frayed. But Daphne found it silly when people chided her for writing critically about relatives and neighbors. “We’re calling ourselves European,” she told them. “You can’t say, ‘Ah, you can write that in London, you can write it in Rome, but you can’t write it in Valletta.’ ”
In 1993, Daphne wrote a column calling for the resignation of the head of the armed forces, after it was reported that he had been helping his son, a prolific cocaine trafficker, avoid customs when entering the country. The first casualty of her column was her long-standing friendship with the trafficker’s brother. The second was one of her sources, who was stabbed in the back with a knife. The third was her front door, which was lit on fire. And the fourth was the truth, when Daphne told her young sons that she had started the fire herself, by forgetting to put out a candle. Paul was six years old, Andrew seven, Matthew eight. They spent the next two weeks at a farmhouse in Gozo, Malta’s tiny satellite island to the north, the children unaware why they were missing school.
The following year, the boys found the family dog dead on the doorstep. “She must have eaten snail poison,” Daphne told them. Only years later did it occur to Paul that poison didn’t account for a slit throat.
Areferendum on joining the E.U. was scheduled for 2003, and in the run-up Daphne’s writing became more acerbic. She joined a campaign called Iva, which means “Yes” in Maltese. Its slogan was “For our children.”
One of the loudest voices in the “No” campaign was that of Joseph Muscat, an ambitious young member of the Labour Party’s media department who was the son of a fireworks salesman and lived in a village just down the hill from Bidnija. He dated the Party leader’s personal assistant, wrote derisive columns about the E.U., and hosted a Euroskeptic variety show called “Made in Brussels” on the Labour Party’s television channel.
Daphne had first encountered Muscat in 1998, when he published a book in which he fabricated her involvement in a criminal conspiracy. A drawing depicted the links between politicians and mafiosi as tentacles of an octopus, one of which bore Daphne’s name. She sued for libel, and the judge ruled in her favor, noting that Muscat held “animus” toward her.
The animus became reciprocal. Malta’s future would be shaped by two people who lived an olive grove apart. “There was this real sense that everything was hanging in the balance,” Andrew recalled. The Labourites, seeking to appeal to Malta’s less educated, non-Anglophone population, spoke of Daphne and the Europhiles as stuck-up globalists. Meanwhile, European governments fretted over what might happen if Labour returned to power. “They remembered Mintoff,” Andrew said. “They worried about the risk of having this sort of Trojan horse in the European Union.”
The Europhiles won, though by a slimmer margin than in any of the several other countries voting on E.U. membership that year. Daphne’s sons were in their teens. “She thought, This is it—we’re finally home,” Paul told me. Andrew joined the Model European Parliament at school; Matthew’s friends started studying and working on the Continent, as the stores in Valletta filled with new kinds of chocolates and trinkets and clothes. “The change is amazing, if you think about it—it’s like physically joining a landmass,” Paul said.
Daphne told her children that the threat of returning to systemic corruption was mitigated by supranational safeguards. “The draw was that we were joining a community of well-governed nations,” Paul said. But the inverse was also true; just as the E.U. purported to serve as a buffer against institutional backsliding, it also acquired the defects of its newest member states.
Refugees and migrants started arriving in Malta by boat from North Africa. Daphne defended the E.U.’s asylum law, as her countrymen advocated sinking the boats at sea. The phrase “Daphne sucks black cock” appeared in spray paint on a wall in Bidnija. Then the arson attacks began—on a human-rights lawyer’s car and on the cars of people who worked for a Jesuit refugee service. One of the Caruana Galizias’ dogs disappeared. Another was shot. Paul, who was in high school, returned home late one night to find that a group of men had tried to burn down the house. They had stacked Molotov cocktails in tires and set them alight against glass patio doors overlooking the valley.
Daphne’s sons attended university in Malta, then moved away. Matthew developed news apps for the Financial Times, then followed a girlfriend to Costa Rica, where he built Web sites for investigative-reporting outlets. Andrew joined Malta’s foreign service, and worked in embassies in Berlin and New Delhi. Paul moved to London and pursued a Ph.D. in economics.
Daphne’s world grew smaller, madder, more constricting. In a country that was ninety-five per cent Catholic and hadn’t legalized divorce, she wrote that she’d rather sip prosecco than go to church on Easter Sunday. “The harassment changes with technology,” she noted, shortly before her death. Fewer ranting phone calls to the house, fewer envelopes filled with shit. An old man sent typewritten letters, which Daphne shared with the boys: “I used to tell them, ‘Look, the crazy old man wrote again.’ And eventually he must have died, because they stopped.”
As the threats shifted online, devoted readers tried to help. A breeder of Neapolitan mastiffs gave her a new guard dog. But an aging bandit who lived nearby said that the dog was too easily won over with treats. “Signora, you need a goose,” he advised.
One day in March, 2008, when Matthew was in Bidnija, Daphne decided to set up a blog. She had grown frustrated with the editorial constraints at the local paper, so Matthew helped her create a WordPress site. Her first post, “Zero Tolerance for Corruption,” was a critique of the Labour Party leader which ran close to four thousand words. The post drew so much attention that the server crashed. Six days later, Malta held its general election. Labour lost.
Later that year, Joseph Muscat ascended to the role of Labour leader—a move that placed him back in Daphne’s crosshairs. He had reacted to Malta’s E.U. accession by reversing his position and becoming one of the Labour Party’s representatives to the European Parliament. Daphne vilified him, for this and other fumbles, in an increasingly vituperative tone. In his first month as Labour leader, she described him as a “cocky shrimp” who was “already proving that his party has promoted him beyond his abilities.” He was, she wrote, a “quintessential empty vessel,” his voice a “nasal whine, which makes him sound like a twerp protesting that he’s been waiting too long in the queue at a nightclub for a vodka-cranberry juice.” Muscat’s supporters were “sub-literate,” his wife’s behavior like that of “the worst sort of vulgar, common and pushy person,” she wrote. “And his aides—oh dear, his aides—don’t really have that much going on upstairs.” The Labour Party portrayed her as a partisan hack. But her attacks were indiscriminate; she once dedicated a post to her sudden realization that Muscat’s opponent—whom she also despised—bore a “truly astonishing resemblance” to a beluga whale.
Muscat set about trying to modernize the Party platform by making it socially liberal and Eurocentric, and in the next few years he won over many of Malta’s youth. He campaigned in favor of bringing women into the workforce and legalizing divorce, and—after a divorce bill narrowly passed, in 2011—he voiced support for gay rights.
In 2013, Muscat ran for Prime Minister on a pledge to reduce energy costs by at least twenty-five per cent, through the construction of a new power station near the island’s southern harbor. Malta’s electricity came from heavy fuel oil. Muscat’s proposed station would run on liquid natural gas, which is cheaper and cleaner. At a campaign event, a woman who lived near the old power station told him that her husband had died of cancer, and that eight of her grandchildren were asthmatic. “She brought tears to my eyes,” Muscat told the press. “Under my watch, I will close this cancer-and-asthma factory. We have to save these people. I don’t want to hear of one child who gets sick.”
By then, Daphne’s blog was getting more than half a million visitors each day—more than the population of Malta. The night before the election, a homicide detective named Keith Arnaud was sent to arrest Daphne at home. Under Maltese law, news outlets were prohibited from publishing election-related content within twenty-four hours of a vote, and Daphne had just mocked Muscat on her blog. Upon her release, she told reporters, “You don’t expect to be in an E.U. member state and have the police investigating and interrogating people for writing about politics on the Internet.”
The next morning, Labour won the election by the widest margin in post-colonial Maltese history, and Muscat became Prime Minister. He was thirty-nine.
In early 2016, Matthew was living in Berlin, working with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists on an unprecedented data leak. Someone with access to the e-mail servers at Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian legal firm, had turned over to reporters more than eleven million documents exposing the inner workings of the global offshore financial system. The resulting investigations of the documents, known as the Panama Papers, triggered protests and money-laundering inquiries on six continents. “This is how most money in the world is stored, and how it flows,” Matthew said. “Offshore banking, offshore shell companies, offshore accountancy firms. Underground rivers. When you see a bank branch on the side of the road, what you’re looking at is really just the hair on the top of the head.” Under Muscat’s leadership, Malta had become an epicenter of such activity, drawing in vast sums of foreign money while turning a blind eye to its provenance.
The I.C.I.J. partnered with more than a hundred journalists from eighty countries to sort through the information. But Matthew, who reviewed the files after he was hired to build the Web site for the project, advised the consortium against sharing documents with Maltese reporters. “I identified very early on that the managing director of the Times of Malta was in a criminal relationship with Keith Schembri,” Muscat’s chief of staff, he told me. “It was a classic kickback scheme.” Schembri, who owned a printing-and-paper company, overcharged the Times for services, and directed a portion of the profits to a shell company owned by the newspaper’s managing director. (The director, who resigned soon afterward, denies any wrongdoing.)
Matthew called his mother and told her that he had discovered in the data that Schembri had a shell company of his own. So did Muscat’s energy minister, Konrad Mizzi, who was now in charge of the power-station project that had been central to the Labour Party’s campaign. A Maltese accountant had begun setting up the companies in Panama five days after Muscat won.
Daphne had felt for years that the power station made no sense. The previous government had approved the construction of an undersea cable to Sicily, which now connected Malta directly to the European power grid. Muscat’s power station, she thought, was superfluous, costly, and unreliable—and was likely set up as a kind of cover for distributing taxpayer funds to political allies and friends. “In Malta we take it for granted that people and businesses finance political parties so as to have their ‘stooge’ in government and get a return on their investment,” she had written a few months after the election. “Elsewhere, this is called corruption.”
Matthew asked his mother to remain quiet until April, when the I.C.I.J. planned to release the Panama Papers. But, in early February, after a tense encounter with Mizzi, the energy minister, she posted a cryptic note about members of the Labour Party wearing Panama hats. A leak turned into a flood of new tips. Then the dam began to break.
There were trusts in New Zealand, companies in the British Virgin Islands, projects in Montenegro, secret accounts in Shanghai and Dubai belonging to members of the Maltese élite. “It’s like a Russian doll—you open the one on top and there’s another one underneath,” Matthew told me.
A third shell company, Egrant, was established at the same time as those owned by the men in Muscat’s Cabinet. But the accountant had taken special care to hide the identity of Egrant’s owner. In the accountant’s e-mail correspondence with his Panamanian counterparts—in which Schembri and Mizzi are identified by name—he said that he could reveal the name of the person who owned Egrant only via an encrypted call.
“How unbelievably corrupt they are,” Daphne wrote. “And worse still, they were not tempted into corruption when they were already jaded in power, but actually got into power with the express purpose of being corrupt.” In a parliamentary declaration filed shortly after Mizzi took office, he had overreported his Maltese bank balance by a quarter of a million euros, as if to preëmpt questions once the funds actually arrived. (Mizzi denies any financial misdeeds.)
With globalization, the country had become an attractive entry point to the European Union for dirty money. “If you allow a bank that’s operating as a laundromat to set up in Malta, it’s as good as setting it up in Germany or France,” Paul said. “Once illicit money crosses that border, that’s it—it’s in.” An Iranian bank owner apparently laundered funds and violated international sanctions through his branch in Valletta; Russian oligarchs bought Maltese passports, under an investment scheme launched by Muscat’s government. Muscat travelled to “citizenship seminars” in Beirut and Dubai to hawk passports.
In speeches, Muscat recited the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, which begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” Daphne published her own version. “Henley, make me an instrument of your passport sales,” she wrote, referring to a global citizenship firm. “Where there is despair, let me profit from it; where there is darkness, let me give it a banking licence.”
The successive scandals had little effect on Muscat’s popularity. He stood by Schembri and Mizzi, and dismissed questions about the ownership of Egrant. When a local reporter asked Muscat if Malta’s reputation was being tarnished by the findings in the Panama Papers, he replied that, if anything, Malta’s reputation was being tarnished from Bidnija.
For almost a year, Daphne voiced her suspicions that Egrant belonged to Muscat. Then a whistle-blower from a bank told Daphne that Egrant belonged to Muscat’s wife, Michelle. Soon afterward, the whistle-blower fled to Greece. The lead investigator at Malta’s Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit told his bosses that he could find out who owned Egrant within seventy-two hours, if he was given access to the right tax returns, bank statements, and Labour Party files. The next morning, he was fired. Meanwhile, Malta’s attorney general discouraged the police from investigating any matters originating from the Panama Papers. (An independent review by a Maltese magistrate found no evidence linking the Muscats to Egrant—but was also unable to identify the owner.)
“One of the effects of Muscat kind of eating away at our institutions was that it sent people to my mother,” Paul said. Bureaucrats whose internal reports ought to have triggered police investigations saw them quashed instead. So they leaked to Daphne, transforming her from a columnist into the island’s most prolific investigative reporter. She didn’t always nail the details, but she was uniquely unafraid.
The Labour Party erected billboards with Daphne’s face on them. “People began to recognize me who had never recognized me before,” Daphne wrote. “They pulled down their car windows to shout abuse.” On the Party’s TV station, Glenn Bedingfield, a government official and a close friend of Muscat’s, hosted a show that regularly portrayed Daphne as a deranged, cackling witch, with a hooked nose and warts, taking swigs from a whiskey bottle as she typed up batty screeds. Bedingfield also started a blog, posting from the Office of the Prime Minister. He published photos of Daphne sent in by the public, making her life on the island intolerable. He wrote about her more than a thousand times. “It was like being in prison,” Paul said. “The last time she went to the beach, people took pictures of her and doctored the photos so that her thighs were larger, her arms were flabbier.” Daphne’s friends were harassed. When she found a café where people left her alone, it was raided by the police, under the guise of an audit. The officers smashed glasses and threw around furniture.
During the summer of 2017, Daphne’s son Andrew was abruptly recalled to Malta from his post in New Delhi. Around that time, he said, an increasing number of inquiries at the Embassy in New Delhi had been about buying Maltese passports. “It was humiliating—Malta was becoming an embarrassment,” he said.
Daphne saw Andrew’s removal as an act of retribution for her work. She stopped writing for two weeks. According to Paul, she nearly quit altogether. “The more frustrated she grew at the state of our country, the more beautiful our garden became, the more trees she planted,” Daphne’s husband, Peter, told E.U. officials. “Daphne created, in the words of one of my sons, a parallel world of beauty in a country that slipped further and further away from the European values and norms of behavior which she held so closely.”
Giovanni Bonello, a former Maltese judge who served on the European Court of Human Rights, predicted Daphne’s death. Later, when Paul asked him how he had known, Bonello replied that a constitutional system is only as strong as the people who implement its checks and balances. “There have always been abuses—it’s not as if the previous governments were immaculate,” he said. But now the weaknesses were being exploited “by people who don’t care about integrity.” Once impunity becomes the standard, he said, “the lone voice crying in the wilderness is standing out for assassination.”
Daphne wrote her final sentences minutes before the explosion: “There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate.”
Days later, in Marsa, a shipyard slum southwest of Valletta, a thirty-eight-year-old taxi driver was panicking. He had just seen in the news that an F.B.I. team had flown into Malta, to help the police sift through the evidence connected with Daphne’s death.
Melvin Theuma held no animosity toward Daphne. He couldn’t understand English, and he’d never read anything she’d written. Their lives had intersected only once before: Daphne’s tires had been slashed near the Hilton at Portomaso, a private complex of luxury apartments, where Theuma had a reserved taxi spot. He saw her there, stranded, and offered her a lift home.
It is not easy to get a taxi spot at the Hilton, and in that way, at least, Theuma regarded himself as a lucky man. He grew up fatherless, watching the Marsa shipyard fall into disrepair, as money and development poured into other parts of the island. Boats rusted, and the population drifted away.
In his mid-twenties, Theuma took bets at Marsa’s horse-racing track, where he befriended Yorgen Fenech, an oligarch’s grandson, who was roughly the same age. Before long, Theuma was working as Fenech’s personal driver.
A decade passed; Fenech launched several business ventures and became one of Malta’s richest men. Theuma revered him. He cooked for Fenech and his friends at a farmhouse in the countryside, and shuttled around his wife and kids. In return, Theuma was awarded the taxi spot at the Hilton, and a glimpse into the life of a man who owned two yachts. As a schoolboy, Fenech had idolized Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian premier and television magnate. “It is not just his wealth and popularity that fascinates me, but his personality and charisma and the way he made it to the top,” Fenech wrote, when he was twelve. Fenech knew Muscat well—they had a WhatsApp group chat with Schembri, Muscat’s chief of staff. With Muscat’s election, in 2013, Fenech became a key stakeholder in the power station.
One day, early in the spring of 2017, Fenech summoned Theuma to a restaurant in Portomaso, and asked if he knew how to get in touch with George the Chinese—the street name for George Degiorgio, who was known in Marsa as a hit man.
“I know him, but I’m not in touch with him,” Theuma replied.
“Get his contact,” Fenech said. “Get him to kill Daphne Caruana Galizia.” He added that Daphne was going to publish damaging information about his uncle Raymond, who presided over the family business empire and whose name appeared in the Panama Papers more than fifty times.
Theuma called Degiorgio’s brother Alfred, who had only one question: “Does this guy pay?”
The Degiorgio brothers wanted a hundred and fifty thousand euros. Fenech agreed, but then told Theuma to have the hit men stand down. Muscat was up for reëlection that June. It was as if Fenech thought it too risky to kill Daphne before another term was secured.
In May, Fenech told Theuma to go to the Office of the Prime Minister, where he was greeted by Schembri. After Schembri gave him a brief tour, they posed for a photograph together. Then Schembri called a subordinate and told him to talk to Theuma about a job.
The interview lasted two minutes. “I already have a job,” Theuma said. Nevertheless, he was put on the government payroll. “I never even went into work,” he later said. “I have no idea what my job was.” But Theuma was awestruck. He felt as if he had been welcomed into the center of state power. Muscat’s chief of staff had made him an espresso. No one mentioned Daphne or the pending contract with the Degiorgios, but Theuma interpreted the fake job as payment for his role as the middleman, and as assurance that the government had his back.
In June, Muscat won a second term. That night, Fenech called Theuma, drunk. The hit was back on, he said. “Move.”
The Degiorgio brothers trailed Daphne and her husband, and surveilled their house. They tried to establish her patterns of movement, but she mostly stayed at home. They bought a rifle and a scope, and set up sandbags to stabilize the weapon against a wall across the valley, where they had a clear view into her living room. But it was a long shot, and they decided on a car bomb instead.
As summer dragged on, Fenech urged Theuma to get the Degiorgios to hurry up, saying that he’d tied up every loose end on a deal—every one but Daphne. Theuma realized that Fenech wasn’t doing this to protect his uncle—he was doing it to protect himself. The Degiorgios killed her, with the help of an accomplice; Theuma handed them a hundred and fifty thousand euros in cash.
Now, after learning that the F.B.I. was involved in the investigation, Theuma rushed to Malta’s only skyscraper, where, on the twenty-first floor, he found Fenech meeting with an Azerbaijani oligarch who had a stake in Muscat’s power station. “I’m scared,” Theuma said. Fenech assured him that the Americans would play only a supporting role in the investigation—the Maltese police would handle the case.
The F.B.I. team easily identified the Degiorgios from cell-tower data. Although the Degiorgios had used burner phones, they had travelled to Bidnija with their personal phones, too, which pinged off the same towers.
Five weeks after the murder, Fenech called Theuma. “We have a big problem,” he said. A source with total access to the investigation had passed along some information: the F.B.I. had found the detonating signal command, “REL 1 = ON.”
Fenech told Theuma to notify the Degiorgios that they would be arrested, along with their accomplice. The brothers tossed their phones in the harbor and waited calmly for the raid. A week later, on December 4th, the Maltese Army and police stormed the Degiorgios’ hideout—an abandoned dockside potato shed, with fish skeletons dangling from the ceiling. The brothers pleaded not guilty, and refused to answer any questions from the police.
Muscat touted the arrests as a major breakthrough in the pursuit of justice. Daphne’s sons made it known that they considered them to be no more significant than finding a gun or a knife.
For the next several months, Muscat’s staffers disseminated conspiracy theories about Daphne’s family. Why did Matthew park the car outside the gate at night? they asked. Did he have a hand in the plot? The campaign escalated after the Caruana Galizias refused to give the Maltese police Daphne’s laptop, which contained her correspondence with confidential sources. “Why do these people have something to hide?” Glenn Bedingfield wrote on his blog. “Is there interest simply in leaving this murder unsolved, so that they will be able to blame the Labour party?” Professionally printed banners, in English and Maltese, appeared on a highway and a busy overpass: “why is someone hiding daphne’s laptop?” Schembri called up reporters and, after being granted anonymity, filled their newspapers with disinformation and lies. On social media, Muscat’s officials used Daphne’s final words as a coda to their insinuations about her family: “#thesituationisdesperate.”
Daphne’s sons rented an old house in the English countryside. The Committee to Protect Journalists subsidized the cost of security training for them, and Daphne’s sister Corinne contributed, too. For several days, a group of former S.A.S. soldiers trained them in emergency first aid, defensive driving, surveillance detection, and how to search a car for bombs. “You feel like you need to do something—almost, in a way, not to think about what happened,” Paul said. “So we started. And, really, from that day, we just never let up.”
In the months before Daphne’s death, a whistle-blower from Electrogas, the consortium behind Muscat’s power-station project, had been relaying e-mails and other documents to her from the company, practically in real time. Matthew had helped his mother receive and sort through the files, “but I didn’t know who the whistle-blower was,” he told me. After the murder, Matthew tracked down the source, and brought to the U.K. a hard drive containing the leaked documents.
Reporters from the Guardian and Reuters visited the country house. Then Daphne’s sons went to London to sort through their mother’s investigative materials with a group of journalists whom they trusted more than the Maltese police. The lead was a French reporter named Laurent Richard, who had set up a nonprofit called Forbidden Stories, to complete the investigations of journalists who are imprisoned or killed on the job. For the past several years, his mission had been to counter the incentive underlying the crime—to show that, Richard wrote, “even if you succeed in stopping a single messenger, you will not stop the message.” Forbidden Stories launched the Daphne Project, and forty-five reporters from eighteen publications in fifteen countries went to work.
“Because Malta is so endemically corrupt, you can’t tell yourself that the police are going to be doing their best,” Paul said. “You can’t tell yourself that the magistrate is on it. Any moment you spend away, there is, on the other side, a force pushing against you.”
Matthew and Andrew reached out to Bill Browder, an American financier and political activist who had successfully lobbied Congress for sanctions against the Russian government, after it detained and killed his friend and colleague Sergei Magnitsky. “Do at least three things a day to annoy them,” Browder advised. “There are three of you. It shouldn’t be hard.” He noted that, after the Russian dissidents Boris Nemtsov and Anna Politkovskaya were murdered, the Council of Europe, the Continent’s main human-rights body, appointed a special rapporteur to scrutinize the Russian system.
Andrew used his diplomatic contacts to prepare for the council’s next session, in Strasbourg. “Obviously, it shouldn’t be the case that every family member of a murder victim should have to completely suspend their lives simply to make sure that a process works as it should,” Paul said. The work took a toll on his health. “My wife was looking at me like a ghost,” he continued. “My father was in a panic. None of his sons were working.” Each time Paul visited his brothers, who had moved into a former orphanage in Saint-Malo, “Matthew was always in the same clothes,” he said.
On the train to Strasbourg, Paul drafted a motion to appoint a special rapporteur for Malta, while Matthew consulted a lawyer over the phone. “My brothers and I aren’t an N.G.O.—we’d never done anything like this before,” Matthew said. “I went from programming Java to this.”
They had one afternoon to collect signatures from council members for the motion. “We were like tobacco-company lobbyists—knocking on doors, one after the other, going around to every member state, talking about institutional failings in Malta,” Paul said. “By the end of the day, because we handed out so many papers, we just didn’t know how many signatures we had.”
The brothers all slept in one hotel room. That night, they got a message saying that their motion had received more signatures than any in the council’s history. It was the first time that any country besides Russia had been assigned a special rapporteur.
“The rule of law in Malta is seriously undermined by the extreme weakness of its system of checks and balances,” the rapporteur later noted. He added that corrupt officials “enjoy impunity, under the personal protection of Prime Minister Muscat,” and called on Malta, under threat of sanctions, to establish an independent public inquiry into the circumstances leading up to Daphne’s death. “If Malta cannot or will not correct its weaknesses, European institutions must intervene.”
Muscat had sued Daphne for writing that his wife was the owner of the Egrant shell company. Now he refused to drop the case. In accordance with Maltese law, the liabilities for that lawsuit and forty-seven others were transferred to her heirs. The family faced potential responsibility for nearly half a million euros, for cases in which the sources were confidential and the main witness was dead.
The sons established a charitable foundation to raise money for their legal defense and to train local journalists in investigative techniques. Paul signed a contract to write a biography of his mother, with all proceeds going to the foundation.
In March, 2018, Matthew returned to Malta and printed three questions on an enormous banner: “Why aren’t Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi in prison, Police Commissioner? Why isn’t your wife being investigated by the police, Joseph Muscat? Who paid for Daphne Caruana Galizia to be blown up after she asked these questions?” He hung it outside a second-story apartment that his family owns on Old Bakery Street, in the heart of Valletta’s tourist district. The local planning authority tore it down—an act that Matthew reported to the police as theft. He printed and hung another banner, with an additional line: “This is our second banner—our first got stolen.”
In a piazza across from the courthouse, activists made a memorial to Daphne with candles and flowers and photographs. Each night, for the next several hundred nights, the justice minister ordered its removal; each morning, the activists built it anew.
The lead homicide investigator was Keith Arnaud—the man who had arrested Daphne on the eve of the 2013 election. He and his colleague, Inspector Kurt Zahra, were unfamiliar with the intricacies of money laundering, politics, and corruption. They investigated gang incidents, domestic violence—normal murders. An old man in Gozo smacked his wife with a fish; she fell down the stairs and died, and he cooked and ate the murder weapon. In the four years before Daphne’s assassination, there were five car bombings on the island, all of which remained unsolved. But those victims had been involved in fuel smuggling, and the prevailing attitude among Malta’s élites was that it wasn’t so bad if the criminals just killed one another. Besides, with the Degiorgio brothers in custody, the bombings had stopped.
Malta has a four-hundred-year history of overlooking murder when convenient. In 1607, Caravaggio sought refuge in Valletta, after beating a man to death in Rome; the Knights of Malta welcomed and knighted him, in return for a few paintings—two of which now hang in Valletta’s biggest cathedral.
Arnaud and Zahra would look for evidence; what was done with it was beyond their control. The Degiorgios needed money for a lawyer. In early 2018, Arnaud and Zahra noticed that a series of random visitors were showing up at the jail with cash. It seemed that they were all part of a chain of intermediaries, each of whom knew only who had given him the envelope, and whom to give it to next. The last man in the chain had no idea where the money was from—only that he had to get a receipt.
Before long, the Degiorgios had hired one of the most expensive lawyers in the country. Arnaud and Zahra listened to the brothers’ phone calls and discovered that, when they talked with their brother Mario, there was often another man in the room; after some pleasantries, Mario would pass him the phone.
The police set up surveillance outside Mario’s home. One day, a white taxi pulled up, and a slightly pudgy man in his late thirties went inside. After a phone call with the brothers in jail, the man climbed back into the taxi. The cops followed the taxi to the Hilton at Portomaso, where the man, Melvin Theuma, met with his boss, Yorgen Fenech.
A few weeks later, Joseph Muscat signed off on wiretap requests for Theuma and Fenech, which only he, as Prime Minister, could authorize. Fenech found out almost immediately, and informed Theuma that they had to start communicating through encrypted apps. Once, Theuma told a friend over an open line that he was upset with Fenech. Hours later, Fenech scolded him for his carelessness; Fenech was even getting updates on Theuma’s wiretapped calls. He forced Theuma to call the friend back and say, for the wiretaps, that the spat concerned a taxi spot at the Hilton.
Theuma felt deeply exposed. Fenech was close to the deputy police commissioner, Silvio Valletta, who was overseeing the murder investigation. Valletta was a regular guest at Fenech’s country house, where Theuma once barbecued for them. After Theuma was identified as the middleman, Fenech took Valletta as his guest to soccer matches in England and Ukraine.
To Theuma, Fenech wasn’t just close to power—he was power. Whatever Theuma learned about the police investigation was filtered through his boss. He began to see himself as a loose end, a mosquito waiting to be squashed.
Theuma drafted a new will. He started recording his meetings with Fenech, with his mobile phone on airplane mode and hidden in his sock. During one conversation, Theuma learned that, although Schembri appeared to be directing the coverup, he probably hadn’t known about the murder until afterward. “When I told Schembri, he went cold,” Fenech said. According to Fenech, Schembri replied, “You should have come to me before you did what you did.”
Theuma started drinking heavily and taking antidepressants. Schembri dispatched one of Muscat’s bodyguards, a former member of the intelligence service named Kenneth Camilleri, to check on Theuma. By way of encouragement, Camilleri told Theuma to pass along to the hit men that they would soon be granted bail, plus a million euros each. But Theuma only grew more paranoid.
In early 2019, Fenech attended a small party for Muscat’s forty-fifth birthday, at a hunting lodge in the Maltese countryside. Fenech gave Muscat three bottles of Château Pétrus, one from Muscat’s birth year and two from that of his twin daughters. Then, according to Fenech, Muscat privately told him to be careful—Theuma was unravelling, and speaking loosely on the phone.
Through the dark Web, Fenech tried to buy cyanide and a pistol with a silencer, but neither transaction went through. In November, 2019, more than two years after Daphne’s murder, police officers surrounded Theuma’s car. He had been warned, weeks earlier, that the police were going to charge him with money laundering, for his role in an underground lottery, and then question him about the murder once he was in custody. He’d arranged to bribe an officer to bury the case. Now, in a panic, he noticed that the crooked cop wasn’t there.
Theuma grabbed an ice-cream box from the car. He insisted on taking it with him to the station, and said that he needed to open it in front of Inspector Arnaud. In the interrogation room, Arnaud watched him pry open the box, sobbing, and empty it. It contained the photograph of Theuma standing next to Schembri at the Prime Minister’s office, a pile of flash drives with his secret recordings of Fenech, and a handwritten note:
I Melvin Theuma am providing this information that I was the middleman in the case concerning Ms. Caruana Galizia. I am relaying this proof so that you will know who hired me and paid for the bomb. I am doing this because I realized that these two people, Yurgen Fenech and Keith Schembri il-Kasco, were working to get rid of me as well. So I prepared this proof so that if I am eliminated you will know the entire story.
The journalists working with Daphne’s files found that the contracts underlying Muscat’s power station made little sense, except as a way of taking public money and distributing it to shareholders. “They were just robbing everyone,” Matthew told me. “It was ‘Let’s just stick a tap in this giant barrel of liquid money that is Malta, and just drain it.’ ”
Azerbaijan’s state oil company was cut in on the deal, leaving Juliette Garside, an investigative reporter at the Guardian, with the impression that the Azerbaijanis were laundering money and setting aside kickbacks for Maltese officials. Other stakeholders, like Fenech, took “success fees” in the millions, for milestones as meaningless as passing a contract from one entity to the next. “Even when you look at the company itself, it’s just a shell,” Matthew said. “They have maybe four staff. Four people? We’re talking about a power station here—a country’s main source of power.”
Daphne hadn’t nailed down the full scale of corruption, but she had got close. “I have discovered that this clique is using a company called 17 Black, which is incorporated in the United Arab Emirates,” she wrote. The company was set up with the primary purpose of transferring about two million euros to Schembri’s and Mizzi’s Panamanian shell companies. But, she continued, “the ultimate beneficial ownership of 17 Black is concealed.”
Now Stephen Grey, of Reuters, discovered that the owner of 17 Black was Yorgen Fenech. “He was the éminence grise,” Matthew told me. “We could see in the leaked e-mails that this guy was controlling everything. Every time a problem came up, the other directors and managers would tell him, ‘Yorgen, we need you to contact a minister.’ They all deferred to him, for everything.“There’s one home in this area within your price range, but it has a mouse.”
Cartoon by Zoe Si
“You have to look at how serendipitous the whole situation is,” Matthew added. Unconnected leaks, from different years and continents, contained independent fragments of the over-all scheme. “Imagine how much we didn’t find out, all the stuff that hasn’t been leaked. Mossack Fonseca isn’t even the biggest law firm in Panama!”
Matthew has continued to investigate shell companies and financial crime, and is campaigning for the dissolution of Electrogas, the company behind the power station. “People seem to think of businesses as a kind of force of nature,” he told me. “What can we do to, for example, make sure that Electrogas does not continue to profit off murder and corruption? Almost nothing. The company is a monopoly.” He gestured to a lamp in the corner. “Every second that that lamp is on, it’s money being sent to Yorgen Fenech, his family,” and the project’s other shareholders. “Am I expected to continue doing this for the rest of my life? Continue paying money to the people whose corruption led directly to my mother’s murder?” (Electrogas denies allegations of corruption.)
By the beginning of 2017, Electrogas had burned through a six-hundred-million-euro loan from the Maltese state. “Everyone was looking at these things in isolation, except my mum,” Matthew said. Had Daphne been able to complete her work, “they wouldn’t have been able to get a new guarantee. The European Union would have raised all these questions about the legality of it. They badly needed a new deal by the end of the year, to refinance the loan. So what did they do? Murder my mother, and then, literally weeks afterward, they signed a new deal.”
One night, before Theuma’s arrest was made public, Muscat called Schembri to discuss Fenech. Then Schembri called Fenech, well after midnight. They spoke for about twenty minutes. After the call, Schembri disposed of his phone. Fenech grabbed twenty-one sim cards and seven thousand euros in cash, and boarded one of his yachts. He set off in the direction of Sicily, but was intercepted by Malta’s armed forces and placed under house arrest.
Fenech had long suffered from anxiety, and had recently spent time at his doctor’s house in Gozo, where he mixed sedatives and cocaine and passed out mumbling. Now he had a panic attack, and the doctor set off for Fenech’s house in Portomaso, with an Ativan prescription. Before he arrived, the doctor received a call from Schembri, who told him to come first to his house, where Schembri handed him a wad of papers to deliver to Fenech. When the doctor reached Portomaso, he tried to hand the papers to one of Fenech’s lawyers, but Fenech snatched them away, fuming. As the doctor left, he heard Fenech mutter, “If I go down, they’re all going down with me.”
The papers from Schembri contained an elaborate, typewritten backstory, intended to frame another government minister for Daphne’s murder. The document ran for more than four pages and showed intimate knowledge of nearly every aspect of the investigation, down to the contents of Theuma’s secret recordings. The script would have cast plausible deniability over otherwise incontrovertible evidence—except that it was discovered by the police, and both Fenech and his doctor later testified to its provenance. (Schembri denies writing the document, and pretty much everything else.) By that point, Fenech had edited Schembri’s script, crossing out some phrases and substituting his own.
For the first several minutes of Fenech’s police interrogation, he sat in sullen silence, his arms crossed. He had asked for a pardon; Muscat had rejected it. Then Zahra asked about the murder of Daphne, and Fenech spoke. “What I have to say, for sure, for sure, is that everything started with Mr. Keith Schembri,” he said. He wore thick, black-framed glasses and a black turtleneck, and spoke in a gruff voice. “And there is another person who knows that Keith Schembri ordered this killing,” he added.
“And who is this other person?” Zahra asked.
“The Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat.”
Muscat denies any involvement in the coverup. On the day of Fenech’s arrest, thousands of people marched to Parliament, shouting Daphne’s final words: “The situation is desperate.” They chanted that their leaders were corrupt, that they were assassins, that they were a mafia. It was as if Daphne’s death had proved what her columns had only alleged. “For the first time, everyone understood that this was a state-sponsored assassination,” Paul told me.
Paul had returned to Malta the night before; now he and his brothers joined the protesters in besieging Parliament. “The plan was to wait for ministers to leave Parliament, and pelt them with eggs and coins, and shout at them,” Andrew recalled. “But then someone came running to the crowd and said, ‘They’re escaping from the back!’ ” Politicians scurried into a former moat surrounding the fortress of Valletta and hid beneath a bridge as their constituents called them “rats” and “cowards” and tried to spit on them. “Think about what that does to a public, to see your governing class reduced to this,” Paul said.
Paul was making a podcast about his mother’s murder, and had arrived in Valletta with a producer. “It’s the first sense of real hope and justice that I’ve felt in two years—and that feels good—but there’s a part of me that’s angrier than I have ever been,” he said. “They sued her. They continued suing us after she died. They kept denying it. They kept accusing us of defaming them. They said that Matthew had a hand in her assassination. They said we were crazy. They said we were totally wrong. They said we’re corrupt. And to see them now, one by one, fall and rat on each other—it just, more than anything, makes me angry.”
Darkness fell. A ship’s anchor hit the seafloor and knocked the cable that brings electricity from Sicily. For the first time, Muscat’s new power station was required to power the whole country. Shop lights and street lamps flickered, then went out.
As the protests continued, Muscat convened his Cabinet for an emergency briefing from Inspector Arnaud. It lasted until three o’clock in the morning. “Every now and then, we’d see a minister in the window, drawing the curtains to see if we were still there,” Paul said. Then Muscat emerged, and the crowd erupted in boos. A volley of eggs splattered against his bodyguards as they hurried him into a car and out of Valletta. “It was one of these moments, I think, where a country sees their leader appearing very weak, and you know that they will never return from that moment,” Paul said.
Schembri resigned. Hours later, he was arrested. Then Konrad Mizzi resigned. Finally, Muscat did, too.
The contents of Fenech’s phone have led to several new criminal investigations. (Fenech now denies any involvement in the murder, and his lawyers describe him as a victim of Schembri’s and Theuma’s deceit.) According to someone close to the inquiries, the contents of the phone, if released, would “bring the country to its knees.”
One of Matthew’s earliest memories is of his mother in the garden, handing him some pots and telling him to fill them with soil. He now lives in the family home with his girlfriend, Gabriella, and his father, and in their spare time he and Gabriella maintain Daphne’s garden. When he moved back, in October, 2018, the garden was a mess. “A lot of things had died,” he said. “There were weeds everywhere.”
In the past two years, they have planted some five hundred carob, Aleppo pine, Italian pine, olive, and oak trees. There are myrtle, pomegranate, almond, and banana trees, Mediterranean fan palms, and more than four hundred types of baobab.
Behind the house, near Matthew’s childhood bedroom, stands a mock-orange tree, knotted and gnarled, with an enormous vertical scar in the base and holes tracing the insides of the branches. When the group of men tried to burn down the house, about fifteen years ago, fire and fuel spilled off the patio, and flames climbed up the tree, which was only a sapling at the time. In the next few years, the sapling died, slowly, but as it did a new tree grew around it. What had caught fire is now completely gone. But you can still see the shape of it, cast in what has grown in its place. ♦
An earlier version of this story misstated the occupation of Boris Nemtsov.Published in the print edition of the December 21, 2020, issue.
Ben Taub, a staﬀ writer, is the recipient of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. His 2018 reporting on Iraq won a National Magazine Award and a George Polk Award.More:CorruptionMurdersAssassinationsJournalistsMaltaSonsBloggersBombingsInvestigationsEuropean UnionLabour PartyPrime Ministers
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