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A journalist's death stunned a small Island nation — and ignited a fight for truth and justice

Family and supporters of anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia are still fighting to keep her spirit alive almost three years after her death.
Image: Daphne Caurana Galizia's memorial in Valletta, Malta
Daphne Caurana Galizia's memorial in Valletta, Malta.Nico Hameon / NBC News

VALLETTA, Malta — The ritual played out every evening in the capital of this Mediterranean island nation: As the sky darkened, street cleaners swept away candles, photographs and handwritten messages to a slain reporter.

Determined to keep alive the memory of anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia for more than a year, Ann Demarco, 60, replaced the objects at the makeshift memorial opposite the city’s law courts. It was a small act of resistance to honor a journalist who inspired Maltese women to “speak up,” said Demarco, a law firm office administrator.

Caruana Galizia was 53 when a powerful bomb blew up her car on Oct. 16, 2017, in what her supporters say was a political killing linked to her reporting on the Panama Papers, the massive 2016 leak of financial documents about secret offshore accounts around the world.

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat makes a statement on the investigation into the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, in Valletta, in November 2019.Guglielmo Mangiapane / Reuters

She still inspires people here because of her reporting on criminal and government corruption on her blog, Running Commentary, which reportedly attracted some 400,000 readers in a country of fewer than half a million people.

In 2016, in the aftermath of the Panama Papers leak, Caruana Galizia exposed the offshore holdings of two prominent players in then-Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s government. Neither has been charged in connection with the allegations.

The three men accused of triggering the car bomb — Vincent Muscat (no relation to Joseph), Alfred Degiorgio and George Degiorgio — are in prison awaiting trial on murder charges. High-profile businessman Yorgen Fenech also stands accused of commissioning Caruana Galizia’s killing. All four deny the charges.

Since her death, Caruana Galizia has come to symbolize the battle over press freedom and journalism around the world. Friends, family and a consortium of dozens of journalists worldwide have collectively fought to keep pressure on the Maltese authorities.

The make-shift memorial to her was part of the fight against a government seen as “trying to sweep Daphne's assassination under the carpet,” said Demarco, who was an avid reader of Caruana Galizia.

“I think they were hoping to wear us down,” she said. “Unfortunately, they were dealing with a group of stubborn women.”

People leave the church of St Francis, after the Archbishop of Malta celebrated mass in memory of murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in April 2018.Matthew Mirabelli / AFP - Getty Images

Despite the pending trial, press freedom campaigners remained concerned about those accused of killing journalists across the world escaping prosecution.

“Impunity is rife,” said Tom Gibson, a lead advocate for the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists. “It means that other killers in the future can carry out similar crimes, because they know that they won’t be prosecuted.”

“Currently, 9 out of 10 murders of journalists are never solved,” Gibson added.

In 2019, at least 250 journalists were jailed worldwide for the fourth straight year, according to the committee.

Caruana Galizia was killed in broad daylight, near her house in Bidnija, near the capital, Valletta. Her son, Matthew Caruana Galizia, also an investigative journalist, had been working from home that day. His mother had left for a trip to the bank, rushing back having forgetting her checkbook. “Bye, bye, now I’m really going,” Matthew Caruana Galizia remembered her saying.

Journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.Pippa Zammit Cutajar

Minutes later, there was the sound of an explosion. “I knew what it was immediately,” Matthew Caruana Galizia said. He ran out the house barefoot and was greeted by a horrific scene — his mother’s car, a Peugeot 108, had blown up and veered into a field.

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“In that moment when I was standing in front of the burning car, I knew that we’re going to be fighting for the rest of our lives,” Matthew Caruana Galizia said.

Daphne Caruana Galizia’s death shocked European Union officials. “We’re not just talking about the murder of a journalist. We're not just talking about corruption and fraud,” said Sophie in ‘t Veld, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, who led a mission to Malta to monitor the inquiry into the death, speaking to NBC News in August.

“We also see more and more evidence of massive conflict of interest of senior figures in and around the [Maltese] government.”

Matthew Caruana Galizia, Daphne's son, at their family home in Bidnija, Malta.Nico Hameon / NBC News

Europol, Europe’s law enforcement agency, now has a permanent presence in Malta, she said. "The Maltese police have to know that Europol is looking over their shoulder every step of the way,” in ’t Veld added.

Prime Minister Robert Abela, who took office in January after Joseph Muscat’s resignation, eventually told the street cleaners in Valletta to stop the daily clearing and leave Caruana Galizia’s memorial alone — a small victory for Demarco and her supporters.

“I believe in the power of journalism and I'm proud of what my mom did,” Matthew Caruana Galizia said. “I really hope that we can encourage people to fight even when the worst injustice has happened.

“Get up on your feet and fight back.”