Book Reviews - Review 396
Murder on the Malta Express
Category: Miscellaneous | Published: 2019 | Review Added: 09-02-2020
More than two years have passed since the heinous murder of the Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Despite the early arrest of three suspects, thought to be the perpetrators of the deed, rather than the brains behind it, nobody has been brought to trial. Unsurprisingly, given that Daphne was a fierce critic of the Maltese government (the last entry in her blog had finished with the sentence 'There are crooks everywhere'), her murder attracted attention from politicians and journalists in other countries, in particular Malta's EU partners. The Dutch MP Pieter Omtzigt produced a highly critical report for the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, which adopted a series of recommendations, whilst journalists from leading European newspapers set up the Daphne Project to continue her kind of investigative journalism exposing political and other scandals.
This volume is the work of three investigative journalists, one Italian (Bonini), one Maltese (Delia) and one British (Sweeney), hereafter referred to as the authors. In January 2018 Sweeney conducted an interview with the then Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, a transcript of which, most remarkable for the stonewalling tactic of the interviewee, is included in the book under the title 'Malta's Shame'. The other documentary section, which acts as a kind of appendix, consists of letters from the authors to various individuals and entities referred to in the work so that they could give their side of the story. Their responses or those of their legal representatives contain no admissions of wrongdoing and frequently include threats of legal action, all of this expressed in what in French is called 'langue de bois' (literally language of wood). It should be noted that several of these people began libel actions against Daphne, which led to her bank accounts being frozen, and continued with them after her death, something permitted by Maltese law. The frequent extracts from her blog included in the text help to give some idea of what provoked such actions. They reveal a formidable pen which wrote in anything but a 'langue de bois'.
The main body of the book begins with a chapter entitled 'Execution' which describes how Daphne was murdered and the immediate aftermath, including a statement by her son Matthew, who accuses the Maltese government of allowing a climate of impunity which led to his mother's murder. He also bluntly describes Malta as a 'mafia state'. There follows a chapter on the history of Malta before the authors turn to various scandals that provoked the categorization 'mafia state'. Most, if not all of these had been written about by Daphne, which led to suspicions that one or more of those involved in them might have been behind her assassination.
The first such chapter is devoted to John Dalli, for a time the European Union Health Commissioner, and nicknamed by the Maltese Labour Party, when in opposition, not without a modicum of wit, 'Johnny Cash'. Daphne contributed to a television programme about him shown on the BBC, suggesting he had a reputation for being venal. Although he did lose his job as a Commissioner, in part because of his ties to Libya, this did not stop his career, with his erstwhile opponents in the Labour Party six weeks after taking over the reins of government appointing him as chief advisor on health in 2013. The party that had castigated the previous Nationalist government had set out on a dubious path which is the subject of the following chapters and which became the chief concern of Daphne Caruana Galizia.
The following chapters, equally marked by quotations from Daphne, are devoted principally to politicians and their controversial activities, the first of these having Prime Minister Joseph Muscat in its sights. He is described as 'The Artful Dodger', a name which appears to have caught on. One issue that crops up frequently is Malta's energy policy. The book recounts how the Muscat government quickly signed a deal with the authoritarian government of Azerbaijan for the purchase of natural gas to supply a gas-fired power station. According to the co-authors, electricity could have been purchased more cheaply on the open market and then come to Malta by way of the cable from Sicily. They also show that relations between Malta and the notoriously corrupt Azerbaijan went far beyond one agreement over gas. There were close connections in the area of banking, with one chapter entitled 'Banking for Baku', whilst the extremely rich daughter of the Azerbaijan President Leila Aliyeva had close ties to Malta, which are unlikely to have had philanthropic motives.
A further scandal that provoked Daphne's ire was the sale of Maltese passports to rich outsiders wishing to gain easy access to the EU and specifically the Schengen Area. The cost of such an operation for the purchaser was set at â‚¬650,000 plus an obligation to rent property for a period of five years. Daphne was appalled at the damage caused by turning something that should be precious into a commodity was doing to the reputation of Malta. A chapter is devoted to this issue, before the authors turn to topics that are less directly connected to the murder, such as the feebleness of the National Party opposition. Another chapter seems particularly peripheral, although it will be of interest to anyone connected with higher education. It concerns a spurious Maltese 'professor' Joseph Mifsud with some connections to Russia. Using such links, he offered various universities the promise of numerous students and therefore income. One victim was the Scottish University of Stirling which, according to the authors lost 'a small fortune'. (p.199) Such an episode only underlines the dangers of the commercialisation of higher education.
It is impossible here to give detailed accounts of everything the authors reveal, particularly when it comes to complicated financial manoeuvres. Nevertheless, I hope to have given a clear impression of how they treat the issues that concerned Daphne Caruana Galizia and were in some way linked to her murder. It is also important to note that since the book was completed in the autumn of 2019, there have been significant developments. The Maltese tycoon Yorgen Fenech, who was closely linked to the Azerbaijan gas deal, was arrested in November 2019 as he tried to leave Malta in his private jot and charged with complicity in Daphne's murder. Prime Minister Muscat, who had already stated that he would not stand at the next election, felt obliged to step down in January 2020, as did some of his henchmen. Since he was given a hero's send-off by some in his party, it is too soon to say if this will lead to positive changes. If it does, the absorbing and highly readable book reviewed here may well be seen to have played a role, as will undoubtedly the brave Daphne Caruana Galizia who brought the world's attention to, to say the least, unsavoury events in Malta and paid with her life.
Stuart Parkes, Malta