Hello, and welcome to this, the first episode of our two-part look at the case of the Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, killed in a car bombing near her home in 2017.
In the final investigation of this season, we will find out about her work uncovering high-level corruption in Malta, and we’ll recount the ruthless methods of those who wanted to silence one of the most fearless journalists of our time, a woman who paid the ultimate price in her crusade to expose the nefarious dealings of the rich and powerful in her homeland.
We have a very special announcement to make in the mid-roll of our show today. So, please listen out for this really exciting news. And at the end of the show we’ll let you know about new exclusive bonus material that will be available to our Patreon supporters.
And now, let us proceed with the case of Daphne Caruana Galizia.
From the medieval battlements of St Elmo’s Fortress, tourists take in the expansive, glittering Mediterranean waves and the gleaming yachts sailing into the Grand Harbor of Valletta. Later that day, the sightseers will move on to take photos at the baroque cathedral and visit the Palace of the Knights Hospitaller of the Order of St John, the one-time rulers of the island and guardians of poor pilgrims to the Holy Land.
Valletta, capital city of the nation of Malta, is the history of conflict written in stone. The Greeks, the Romans, the barbarians, the Spanish, the French, the British - every empire that’s ever dominated the Mediterranean has possessed this little island, and left their indelible mark. The Ottomans besieged it, the Nazis bombed it.
The city is fashionable these days - it’s one of those “hidden gems” so beloved of glossy travel magazines. Valletta has its share of swanky hotels, good restaurants, and brass-plaque office buildings. But you don’t have to stray too far before the historic attractions and sunny streets give way, fraying into the wending alleys and narrow waterways of the rougher parts of this port town. There to be found in the less fashionable quarters are rusting warehouses and patched up fishing boats, evidence of the hardscrabble lives of Mediterranean fishermen and the bruising underworld of organized crime. The ranks of such tough men are what endure through the ages, whatever the language, custom, or creed of those powers who occupy the island. The people who have learned, come hell or high water, how to make a living - honest or otherwise - from this rocky outcrop in the sea. But there are other, newer ways to make a living - and a damn good one - in Malta.
The country is now a member of the European Union, and as such it has become an entrepôt, granting access to the largest trading block in the world. That has provided a wealth of opportunity for business and for travel. Naturally, it has also provided rich pickings for crime and corruption. And it has opened up a wide grey area in between, space where the line between the law and the lawless is blurred, where the distinction between the gamekeeper and poacher can be hard to find.
Let’s go back to those unfashionable nooks and byways of Valletta. Where smugglers shift boatloads of illegal drugs, untaxed cigarettes, fake brand merchandise, sanctions-busting oil, and trafficked human beings. There we’ll find an old potato warehouse, not much more than a tin shed, standing on the docks with a small motor yacht, named the Maya, lolling in the trash-strewn water alongside. Inside the warehouse are weightlifting benches, a boxing bag, a barbecue grill, a table and chairs. It’s clearly a hangout, a den, a boys club. From the metal rafters, the heads of dried marlin hang. At the far end of the shed there is a room built of stone, with a solid metal door and steel shutters. This where, at 8:15 am on December the 4th, 2017, a police SWAT team stormed in to seize the alleged killers of Daphne Caruana Galizia. The two men inside were ordered to lie face down on the ground. George and Alfred Degiorgio, brothers, aged 56 and 53, were, according to one person who knew them from the neighborhood, “the kind of people who, even in the middle of summer, give you a chill.” A third man, Vincent Muscat, aged 56, was also arrested. They were all charged with the murder of the Maltese journalist, who had died in a car bombing two months earlier.
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Daphne Anne Vella was born on the 26th of August, 1964, in a small town across the harbor from Valletta. The eldest of four sisters, she was raised in a middle class home and went on to attend the University of Malta. She was very involved in politics, and at the age of 18 she was jailed for taking part in a protest. After graduation, she married a lawyer named lawyer Peter Caruana Galizia, with whom she had three sons.
At the age of 23, she started work as a journalist. At two national newspapers, she soon earned a reputation as a formidable person in the newsroom: conscientious, hard working, but not easy to get along with. Not only a successful columnist and editor, she also founded two fashion and lifestyle magazines. But investigative journalism proved to be, above all else, her métier.
In March of 2008, she set up a blog titled Running Commentary, in order to provide a platform for in-depth reporting. The blog, which she ran singlehandedly, became one of the most popular websites in Malta, with a greater readership than the national newspapers. Running Commentary became essential reading, not just for a public that wanted to find out about the dodgy doings of those in positions of power, but for the very people targeted by her one-woman crusade against corruption.
If there was a deep source, a top tip-off, or high level leak, then, dollars to donuts, it would find its way to Mrs. Caruana Galizia. Sitting at her laptop computer on the dinning table of her home in the countryside, she could be working on a lead long before the papers in Valletta even got a whiff. She knew the rumors before they made it to the mill.
Caruana Galizia pursued stories with flinty determination, but also with humor. According to her son, Matthew, when it came to those who abused their positions of power, she believed that the best way you could get at them was by making fun of them. And she did this extremely well. “These kinds of people would never be able to get over the fact that they were being mocked so publicly by a woman,” Matthew said. That, he believes, is what made his mother an extremely dangerous journalist to some dangerously corrupt people.
In 2016, she broke a huge story. Titled, “If the (Panama) hat fits, wear it”, the piece opened an almighty can of worms, beginning a process that would lead to accusations of government involvement and complicity in highly suspect, if not outright illegal, financial activities. In May of that year, the so-called Panama Papers had been released by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Comprising over 200,000 documents leaked from the archives of a Panamanian law firm, the information detailed financial skulduggery, including complex tax avoidance and evasion mechanisms, that implicated wealthy businesspeople and top politicians around the world. From this trove, Caruana Galizia, working with her eldest son, Matthew, who is also a journalist, uncovered that two senior Maltese government politicians had set up secret Panamanian companies. She then reported that a third secret company in Panama belonged to the wife of the prime minister, taking her case to the very heart of political power on the island.
Government minister Konrad Mizzi was shown to have connections with business entities in Panama and New Zealand, which were used to minimize tax liabilities and potentially avoid accountability. Faced with this exposure, Mr Mizzi claimed the foreign entities had been set up purely to manage his family’s assets, and had nothing to do with any of his dealings as an elected official. Caruana Galizia then revealed that the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, a man named Keith Schembri, owned a similar trust based in New Zealand, which in turn was held by a Panamanian shell company.
The government of Malta strongly denied any wrongdoing by the minister and the chief-of-staff. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat stated that he had full confidence in the men, and that there was nothing untoward in the actions of his own family, calling the allegation that his wife had set up a Panamanian company in order to hide their financial activities, “completely false and defamatory.”
Nonetheless, this was all an embarrassment. Many other prominent people around the world had been caught up in the Panama scandal, such as the prime ministers of Britain and Iceland, and the royal family of Qatar. But in the case of Malta, the exposé was a black eye that only made worse the already battered reputation of the country. Malta was known as place where the government exerted the lightest of light touches upon all manner of financial activities. Tax dodging and money laundering were known to take place - all carried out under the not-so-watchful eye of the authorities. So, Prime Minister Muscat was none-too-keen to have the name of his country and his administration bandied around in conjunction to the toxic epigram, the Panama Papers.
The intensely relaxed regulatory environment on Malta came under growing scrutiny. When the European Union began to warn the government that the island should reform and take against corruption and financial crime … well, there must have been a few worried faces, a few sweating brows amongst those who profited enormously from the lax environment of their Mediterranean haven.
The Panama Papers exposé was hardly the first time that Caruana Galizia had challenged those in positions of power. Her reporting had brought down a police commissioner with links to the criminal underworld. A Maltese representative at the European Union had to resign after she exposed his involvement with an alleged fraudster in the Bahamas. She dug up dirt on an oil smuggling network, in which stolen Libyan oil was being transported to Europe via Malta on converted fishing boats. And she had joined some dots to connect well-known people in politics with some questionable deals with the government in Azerbaijan, via a crooked banker in Valletta.
It was a war by one against all. One journalist, a middle aged mother of three, working out of her home, with nothing more than a computer, the Internet, a formidable rolodex, sharpened journalist nous, and a backbone of steel. Against a nexus of government officials, big businesses, organized criminals, and an international cast of characters so nefarious as to defy satire. It was a dirty war. Daphne received death threats on a regular basis. Feces was posted through her letterbox. Three family dogs were killed: one had its throat slit, its body dumped on her doorstep; another was poisoned; a third shot. A neighbor’s car was set ablaze, suspected to have been a misdirected attack. Her house was set on fire while the family slept inside, petrol-covered tires stacked against the door.
In an interview, she talked about the pressures she was under, mostly from supporters of her political targets, describing her state of anxiety as, “churning, churning nerves all the time.” She was also hit by multiple spurious lawsuits, often libel actions, designed to tied her up and drain her limited resources.
In early October, 2017, Daphne gave an interview in which she described how at times she felt the island’s culture was anchored to its medieval past. “Look at what they call me most: a witch,” she said, referring to her opponents. “I mean, when were women called witches? [Before] the age of Enlightenment.” Sometimes, she said, “I don’t feel I’m living in a European country.”
And yet, she persevered. Until, that is, the afternoon of the 16th of October 2017, when Daphne Caruana Galizia’s life was mercilessly ended in a car bomb attack.
Let’s take a break. We’ll be right back.
As I said at the top of the show, we have a thrilling announcement to make!
We’ve been working behind the scenes these past few months on an exciting new project, and we’re so pleased that we’re now be able share it with you.
First of all, as you may not have noticed, a few months ago we quietly launched our own network, Tantallon Media. Until now, Assassinations Podcast has been our sole show, but next week we’re launching a brand new podcast that will be hosted by our very own producer, Lindsey Morse.
The show is titled Fab Figmentals. In each episode Lindsey will share a story about a fascinating mythical creature and then go into the background of the legend.
She’ll be exploring the realm of curious creatures, magical monsters, and beautiful beasts from all around the world.
The show launches on Wednesday, July 10th with three episodes to download. The first episodes will feature: the Scottish kelpie, the Australian bunyip, and Baba Yaga.
Assassinations Podcast will be dark next week as we prepare for our Season 3 finale, but we’re going to release the first episode of Fab Figmentals in our feed so you can check it out. And yours truly makes a guest appearance, so listen out for that.
The show promises to be fascinating and fun, so please check it out! Here’s Lindsey with a promo for the show:
[Promo for new show]
Sounds great, Lindsey. I’m so excited about this new venture!
Now, back to the show.
Alfred Degiorgio stood next to his car, smoking a cigarette. The wall of an old British fort shielded him from the main road. He looked down the hillside to a narrow track that led to a modest family home near the village of Il-Bidnija. Every day for the past two weeks, he had stood in this spot, watching. This was a quiet part of the island, off the tourist maps - mostly farmland, though foreigners had recently started to move in, building large new houses in the area in order to enjoy its pleasant country views. The man threw the cigarette stub onto the ground and brought the binoculars back up to his eyes. The time was coming up on 3pm. His long stakeout would soon be over.
Unseen by Degiorgio, inside the house, sitting at her desk, Daphne Caruana Galizia had just published the latest post on her blog, Running Commentary. She was still doggedly pursuing the government of Malta, as well as powerful financial and criminal interests on the island. She had signed off with the somewhat dispirited words: “There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate.”
She shut her laptop just before 3 pm and prepared to go out. She had arranged a meeting at her bank in Valletta to discuss her account, which had been frozen as a result of the cripplingly expensive legal battles she was up against. Daphne left her house, but quickly returned to pick up a checkbook. “Okay, now I really am going,” she said to her son, Matthew. Shutting the front door, she got into her small Peugeot hatchback car parked in the driveway.
Alfred Degiorgio made a phone call. A few kilometers away, standing on the deck of a boat bobbing in the Grand Harbor of Valletta, George Degiorgio answered. Alfred described the movement of the little Peugeot as it wended its way along the cactus lined road. One minute and 47 seconds into their call, George pressed send on a text message on another cell phone he was holding. The message went through to a SIM attached to a bomb on the underside of Caruana Galizia’s car. This was the detonation device. The explosion was enormous. Alfred could hear it echoing through the valley, across the olive groves, and up to his lookout spot. George could hear it too, over the line. And, inside the house, Matthew heard the blast over the music he was playing.
He knew it was a bomb right away. He ran out of the house barefoot, oblivious to the stones of the pathway and rocky village road tearing at the soles of his feet. He heard a car horn blaring and smelled burning fuel. The car was flung over a low wall into a field. When he arrived on the scene, it was like a war zone. The bomb had created an inferno as the petrol tank exploded.
“I looked into the car and there was nothing,” Matthew recalled. “It was just fire. I expected to see something like the shadow of a person or something, but there was nothing.” Then he looked around. Charred body parts were strewn all across the field in which the twisted wreckage burned.
Miles away, in the harbor, the boat made for its mooring. George Degiorgio called a friend and told him with a laugh: “I caught two big fish today.” At 3:30pm, he texted his wife: “Buy me wine, my love!” He then tossed two burner phones and the SIM card from his personal phone into the water.
We have this evidence of the movements and communications of the alleged killers thanks to the investigation of Maltese authorities, working with international support from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and specialists from the Netherlands. The three men charged with her murder deny everything. But the case that has been meticulously built against them seems to be compelling.
The first breakthrough came after police ordered Malta’s two main cell-phone companies to hand over all records of network activity near the village of Bidnija. They looked at data beginning the day before the car bomb went off, when Matthew had driven Daphne’s car home and parked in the gravel lane outside the house. Two mobile numbers stood out because their activity stopped at the moment of the blast, just before 3pm on October 17th. Police then identified a SIM card that was inactive in the area until it received a text message at 2.58pm. With the exception of this one message there was no record of any activity from this number. Based on this, investigators began to work from the assumption that this SIM was used to detonate the bomb, which forensic experts identified as having been placed on the underside of Caruana Galizia’s car beneath the driver’s seat.
Police believe that this trigger SIM card had been slotted not into a phone but within a gadget such as is used to control things like house lights and garage doors via a cellular device. The SIM card was dubbed the “God device.” Investigators proceeded from the assumption that a text message had been sent in order to activate a detonator attached to the explosives. That text, they uncovered, came from another SIM card used with a so-called “burner phone” - a cheap, disposable type of phone that’s commonly used by criminals because it is hard to trace and even harder to link to any one individual.
Difficult, yes; but not impossible. Working with the cellular providers, police detectives discovered that on the day of the bombing, the “God Device” connected to a cell-phone tower that faced out to sea. And the trigger text was sent from a phone connected to a tower just inside the Grand Harbor of Valletta. Armed with this lead, police scanned CCTV footage gathered from a camera monitoring the port. One of the boats it filmed was a motor yacht. The name Maya could be made out, painted on the side. And a man could be seen on deck, holding a phone. The Maltese intelligence agency had been monitoring this ship, which was suspected of involvement in smuggling, and they could identified the man standing aboard - George Degiorgio.
A conspiracy was confirmed when forensic scientists ran tests on an cigarette butt, which had been dropped in a sheltered nook, hidden from the main road, with a view down the valley to Caruana Galizia’s house. The DNA matched that of another known criminal, Alfred Degiorgio.
The spy agency had also been tapping George’s personal cell phone, and they told police that on the day of the murder that phone had been in all the same places as the SIM that George had previously been using to communicate with his brother. Cell company records showed that this SIM had only ever been used to send text messages to two other devices, one of which was located in the vicinity of the village of Il-Bidnija at the time of the explosion. The records of these three burner phones showed that their users had visited this area on several occasions in the weeks before the attack.
Further examination of the phone records showed that the phones allegedly used by all three suspects were active in Daphne’s village in the wee hours of October 16th, the day before the explosion. The police were sure this was then the bomb must have been planted underneath the car. Attached would have been the SIM card - the so-called “God device” - used as the trigger to detonate the bomb.
The brothers George and Alfred Degiorgio and their friend Vince Muscat, who is not relation of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, have been charged and are still awaiting trial. But, the question remains - who ordered the assassination of this brave, tenacious journalist?
As her sister Corrine put it, some very powerful people in Malta - people with sinister international connections - wanted to “shut her up”. Daphne “spoke truth to power,” her sister said. “That was threatening to people in power … Let’s just say I actually found my sister’s murderer, what am I supposed to do? Who can I turn to? There are so many people who are prevented from doing their jobs or deliberately not doing them or worse. That’s exactly why [Malta] is a mess.”
Daphne’s death did not mark an end to the relentless crusade that she had begun. Rather, her family, as well as her supporters in Malta and around the world, committed themselves to unmasking those behind her murder and continuing her life’s work.
Thank you so much for tuning in to this episode of Assassinations Podcast. In two weeks time we will conclude our look at the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, focusing on her investigations and the powerful, dangerous people whom she crossed.
We’ll discover the fate of the men arrested for the crime, and ask if the authorities are any closer to catching those behind the plot. And we’ll look at the work being carried out by journalists from all over the world, who are continuing her investigations - work which has confirmed many of the claims she made about official malfeasance.
This episode was researched & written by me, Niall Cooper. Lindsey Morse produces and edits the show. Our theme music was created by Graeme Ronald.
Assassinations Podcast is going dark next week in order to launch the new show, Fab Figmentals.
Lindsey and I are so excited about the show! And we’re really looking forward to sharing these wondrous mythological stories with you! So, look out for the first three episodes coming out on Wednesday next week.
For our Patreon supporters, this week we will have a new mini-episode, in which I’ll give an update on the case of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which we covered in the first case of the season. You can gain access to this and other bonus material, and also support the show, by making a pledge through Patreon at patreon.com/assassinationspodcast.
Thank you so much for tuning in, and we look forward to seeing you in two weeks’ time.
Until then, goodbye.