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In Journalist’s Murder, a Test for Malta, and the European Union

BIDNIJA, Malta — On Oct. 16, at 1:41 a.m., a cellphone SIM card was activated in this rural Maltese village. It was the moment, investigators say, when a remote-controlled bomb packed with TNT was armed and placed under the driver’s seat of this tiny country’s most famous, and most provocative, journalist.

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, New York Times

BIDNIJA, Malta — On Oct. 16, at 1:41 a.m., a cellphone SIM card was activated in this rural Maltese village. It was the moment, investigators say, when a remote-controlled bomb packed with TNT was armed and placed under the driver’s seat of this tiny country’s most famous, and most provocative, journalist.

The next afternoon, the journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, left her house and walked toward her gray Peugeot 108, intent on regaining access to her bank account. Her assets had been frozen as part of a libel case, one of 47 suits pending against her. This one stemmed from an article she had published on her blog, about Malta’s economy minister, Christian Cardona, reportedly visiting a brothel in Germany while traveling on official business.

Her son Matthew heard a powerful explosion and felt the windows of the house shake. He raced outside and sprinted barefoot down the long, unpaved drive from their home to the main road, where a column of black smoke churned upward, into the autumn sky. Shards of glass and plastic were everywhere, and, most gruesomely, chunks of flesh were strewed on the road, all accompanied by the droning blare of a car horn.

He struggled to maintain hope that it was not his mother’s car, until he saw a hubcap with the stylized lion logo of a Peugeot on the ground and could no longer deny what had happened. He stared at the burning hulk that had come to rest in a nearby field. “I expected to see something like the shadow of a person or something, but there was nothing,” Matthew Caruana Galizia recalled in an interview. “It was just flames.”

The death of Daphne Caruana Galizia riveted international attention on this island nation in the Mediterranean and revealed that a tourist hub known to many as a “Game of Thrones” filming location was also a transit point for fuel smuggled from Libya, a center of the online gambling industry and a haven for offshore banking suspected of links to money laundering.

The search for her killers posed a test for Malta, its political parties and institutions, and for the European Union, of which the country is a member. It is a test the family claims the country is failing. Three men the police call career criminals were arrested in December and charged with planting and detonating the bomb. But questions about who was behind them and why they wanted Caruana Galizia dead remain unanswered.

“The brutal assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia was aimed at instilling fear in everyone,” a European Parliament delegation to Malta said in a report released in January, “especially those involved in investigating and prosecuting cases of money laundering and corruption.”

After her death, 45 journalists from 18 news organizations agreed to work together to pursue leads from her work on corruption and international money-laundering networks, as well as look into the circumstances surrounding her death. Forbidden Stories, an investigative nonprofit in Paris devoted to completing the work of jailed and murdered journalists, coordinated the collaboration, in which The New York Times took part.

Today, the once-barren field where the burning wreck of Caruana Galizia’s car came to rest has sprouted green and lush, dotted with yellow and red spring wildflowers. The men charged with the killing — the brothers George and Alfred Degiorgio, and Vincent Muscat, no relation to the prime minister, who shares the surname — have pleaded not guilty but have otherwise refused to talk, and they remain in custody.

But the police say the three men were tipped off to their imminent arrest, according to evidence gathered in the investigation. Among the allegations the victim’s family passed to investigators is that Cardona, the economy minister, and two of the suspects in the killing were regulars at the same out-of-the-way bar.

In a written response, Cardona said that the bar, Ferdinand’s, “welcomes patrons from all walks of life, including other politicians.” He added, “I do not, however, recall having any discussions with any of these individuals, and have definitely never had any meetings with them.”

Cardona said that he had not been interviewed in connection with the case. The police have chosen to work their way up from the evidence at the crime scene rather than look for motives in the journalist’s reporting. A person with knowledge of the investigation who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter confirmed that the police were not actively looking into whether the crime had been motivated by Caruana Galizia’s reporting on politicians. They still have a dozen investigators working on the case — half of them full time — while other authorities are combing financial and communications records to try to find links to the killers.

Caruana Galizia’s family says that the police are content to let the three suspects in custody take the fall without investigating deeper and potentially uncovering wrongdoing by the governing party. They fear that with time, the urgency to uncover why she was killed, and who was behind the attack, has already begun to recede. Six months after her death, neither the bomb-maker nor the person or people who wanted her dead have been found.

“There is now a sense of impunity, a culture of impunity,” said Simon Busuttil, the former leader of the opposition Nationalist Party. “So everyone thinks they can get away with murder,” he added, “perhaps even literally.”

Underscoring the point, a Russian woman identified as one of Caruana Galizia’s sources has applied for political asylum in Greece, where she fled in fear for her life after the assassination, and she is fighting extradition. In her years as a muckraking journalist, Caruana Galizia angered countless people on this island, not to mention an Iranian-born banker, drug-trafficking syndicates and the president of Azerbaijan. Caruana Galizia was no stranger to threats. In 1995, someone slit her dog’s throat and laid its body on her doorstep. In 2006, unidentified perpetrators stacked five large tires filled with bottles of gasoline against the back of her home and set them ablaze.

In an interview she gave to a researcher from the Council of Europe shortly before her death, Caruana Galizia, 53, described “a climate of fear” in Malta, a country where people were afraid of the consequences of speaking out.

“There have been periods where literally I would feel like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to get a stomach ulcer,'” she said. “That churning, churning nerves all the time. Because you’re living under it constantly, you know?”

Caruana Galizia dedicated herself to uncovering what she saw as a web of corruption in the country, on her blog, Running Commentary, where her reporting veered from tabloid to investigative to partisan and back again — sometimes in a single article. Hated by many but read by all, her post about Cardona had 547,146 page views; Malta has 460,000 people.

But she also reported on how Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s chief of staff and energy minister had used the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca to set up shell companies there shortly after the Labor Party came to power in 2013, which they have acknowledged was true. She said that a third company that had been set up belonged to Muscat’s wife, Michelle, which the couple vehemently denied. The Muscats demanded a formal inquiry to clear their name, and it is still underway.

Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, a former lawmaker who switched from the Nationalist Party to the Labor Party and who was a regular subject of Caruana Galizia’s blog, shared a view expressed by many here: that Caruana Galizia engaged in loosely sourced personal attacks rather than in sober, careful journalism.

“It’s not exactly what’s called a journalistic gem,” he said. “Most of it is mainly insults and denigrating any opponent to her clique.”

Orlando also pointed out that Labor, which won elections called after her disclosures about the offshore accounts, had nothing to gain from her death, as it would bring only renewed criticism and attention. “No one in the political sector of Malta had any interest in her death,” he said. After the murder, foreign law-enforcement experts arrived to help with the investigation. A team from the Netherlands assisted with forensics at the crime scene. The FBI sent a team to analyze cellphone data. Europol, the European Union law-enforcement agency, had people on the ground working with its Maltese counterparts out of a command center set up at police headquarters.

Significant evidence was gathered from cellphones used to coordinate the bombing, and from surveillance videos linking the three suspects to the killing. But little progress has been made in discovering who was behind them.

The inquiry has been hampered by the family’s distrust of the police, which means that investigators have not had the chance to examine her laptop, which might contain clues to who might have betrayed her, or had an interest in silencing her.

“Daphne would never have handed over her laptop,” Corinne Vella, Caruana Galizia’s sister, said in a statement Monday. “She always said, ‘If anything happens, if the police ever come to the house, I will throw my laptop into a well,’ and she meant it.”

She added: “It was about protecting her sources. She knew that whatever information the police got hold of would go straight to the same people in government she was investigating.”

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