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18 October 2017updated 04 Aug 2021 2:25pm

Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was funny and brave – and it made her enemies

Remembering the Maltese journalist killed by a car bomb, minutes after she warned about "crooks". 

By Michael Axworthy

I first met Daphne Caruana Galizia in 1990, when I was serving a posting in the British High Commission in Malta. Before I met her, I had read her articles in the Sunday Times of Malta. She was quite simply the most entertaining read in Maltese journalism at that time – direct, conversational, witty, but also serious and intensely focused when some abuse or injustice took her attention. The kind of writer you buy the paper for, and leaf through to find her piece as you turn away from the newsstand. She was already a household name in Malta, by sheer talent, despite being only in her mid-twenties.

When I met Daphne in person, she made an even stronger impression. She was tall and and beautiful, but in a way that came from the force of her personality at least as much as from her appearance. She was always elegantly dressed, but it was in conversation that she really sparkled. Her intelligence fizzed. One moment she would be pressing her argument on some point of politics or social analysis, deadly earnest and full of intensity, and then the corner of her mouth would start to curl into a grin at some absurdity or oblique comment, and within seconds she would be leaning forward, shaking with laughter.

Even then, she had made enemies. Her writing style was often strident, blunt and personal. It was strong stuff, and some people, perhaps especially pompous middle-aged men with an excessive sense of their own importance, did not like it, especially if they were the target. There was more than a small element of misogyny in those reactions. As the years went on, she made more enemies, but none of the hostility dented her determination. She campaigned against domestic abuse, and against hypocrisy and corruption among politicians, latterly in her own blog.

Maltese politics is febrile and strongly partisan. Libel actions came and went; some were dropped; others succeeded, but the damages were paid within hours by public donations. Then, in 2015, she broke the news (derived from the leaks of the Panama Papers) that two prominent Maltese politicians, Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, owned secret companies in Panama. Later they came under suspicion of financial irregularities in connection with those companies; in particular, that money had been channeled to them from the government of Azerbaijan (Mizzi and Schembri deny any wrongdoing and responded to the allegations by suing for libel). The Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, was suspected of involvement also (he also denied it). Further revelations from Daphne emerged in April 2017 and precipitated a general election in June this year, but Muscat was re-elected.

In recent weeks, Daphne received death threats. At 2.35 pm on 16 October 2017 she posted a further report about Schembri, ending with the words “There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate.” Minutes later, as she drove away from her house near Bidnija, in the Maltese countryside, a car bomb exploded, killing her. Her son Matthew rushed to the burning car, but Daphne was already dead. Later he wrote on Facebook:

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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.

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Daphne was the best kind of journalist, the best kind of person; supremely brave, passionate, unstoppable in the pursuit of injustice, but also a listener, balanced and ready to hear arguments from whichever side. And kind. She had to make some hard choices in her own life, and her integrity was huge. But so was her sense of humour. Her savage killing cries to the heavens for justice. But her spirit cannot be killed, and will live on, in memory, in all who had the good fortune to know her and her work.

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