The car bomb that killed the investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia on Monday did not go off in Honduras, Afghanistan or any other country where one might expect to hear about brutal violence against reporters. The device exploded in the early afternoon down the road from her home in the tiny European nation of Malta, where, for the greater part of the last decade, the 53-year-old had held some of the most powerful people in the country accountable for political corruption, offshore financial dealings and abuse of power.
It’s still unclear who was behind her death, which Maltese politicians from all parties widely denounced as a murder. It’s also baffling as to why the local police were not keeping a closer eye on her, given that she’d apparently reported threats just two weeks before.
What’s certain, though, is that in addition to erasing a life, a wife, a mother of three and a small country’s most popular blogger, the bomb dispensed with the idea that journalists working in developed European democracies are immune to — or even protected from — fatal repercussions for their work.
Last month, the dismembered head, limbs and torso of Kim Wall, a Swedish writer profiling a D.I.Y. submarine enthusiast in Denmark, were found off the coast of Copenhagen. Over the past year, Turkey, which was once at least nominally democratic, has imprisoned more than 100 journalists without trial. Poland’s ruling party has seized control of public radio and TV programming, all but ending their editorial independence. Even broadcast journalists in Finland — a country that has consistently ranked at the top of global press freedom lists — have been pressured by their prime minister not to publish reports about his conflicts of interest in business.
It’s not just anecdotal. In a recent report, Reporters Without Borders noted that democratic countries “began falling in the Index” — the World Press Freedom Index — “in preceding years and now, more than ever, nothing seems to be checking that fall.”
Of course, physical threats and murders remain rare: A majority of damage to journalists comes in the form of censorship, financial pressure and lawsuits. But the assassination of Ms. Caruana Galizia in a developed European country illustrates how high the stakes are for journalists pushing back against power, particularly for independent reporters without institutional backing.
Ms. Caruana Galizia did not work in a traditional newsroom. She’d previously served as an editor for local publications and wrote regular columns for The Malta Independent, but she took to blogging prolifically, probably because she had so much more to say than a biweekly slot would allow. I exchanged emails and phone calls with her in 2014 while I was reporting on Malta’s controversial plans to sell its citizenship to wealthy foreigners. Her site was an invaluable source of information, and she was a helpful sounding board.
Matthew Caruana Galizia, Daphne’s son and a reporter and programmer for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, found his mother’s remains in and around the burning vehicle. Later on Monday, he posted on Facebook: “My mother was assassinated because she stood between the rule of law and those who sought to violate it, like many strong journalists. But she was also targeted because she was the only person doing so. This is what happens when the institutions of the state are incapacitated: The last person left standing is often a journalist. Which makes her the first person left dead.”
Since starting her blog about a decade ago, Ms. Caruana Galizia was relentless in exposing what she saw as endemic corruption within these very institutions. She documented freeloading party officials, the government’s ties with Azerbaijan, even an exotic zoo run by a chum of the prime minister. She frequently accused Prime Minister Joseph Muscat; his chief of staff, Keith Schembri; and Malta’s energy minister, Konrad Mizzi, of cronyism, kickbacks and other transgressions.
Over the past two years, her name came up most frequently in the context of the Panama Papers, an enormous leak of offshore bank account data obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Ms. Caruana Galizia was not part of the reporting team, and didn’t have access to the papers themselves. She did, however, smell a rat long before a whistle-blower confirmed its presence — and when the leaks showed that some of Mr. Muscat’s associates had set up bank accounts in Panama, she relied on her own knowledge, sources and intuition to obtain information leading her to allege on her blog that Mr. Muscat’s wife, Michelle, owned one of these firms. (Maltese officials still deny this.)
“Daphne was on the case of the ministers and their offshore holdings before the leaks came out,” recalls Marina Walker, the deputy director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. “She preceded and enriched the Panama Papers — and she worked alone, which is the hardest thing to do.”
Ms. Caruana Galizia’s revelations were instrumental in pushing Mr. Muscat to call a snap election in June, which he won in spite of the corruption allegations. Still, she didn’t back down; she kept criticizing Mr. Muscat, and his political rivals, too.
“She was fearless and feared,” Jason Azzopardi, an outspoken member of the opposition party, told me over the phone. “The aim of people who carried out” the murder “was not ‘merely’ to eliminate her physically but to intimidate, shock and awe.”
The impact of the bomb that killed Ms. Caruana Galizia isn’t just being felt in her country. Reporters around the world are asking themselves: If it can happen in Malta, can it happen anywhere?
Atossa Araxia Abrahamian is a journalist and author of The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen.