Pulitzer Prize winning Panama Papers journalist talks fighting corruption and justice for his mother’s assassination.
As a software engineer engaged in journalism, in 2013 Matthew Caruana Galizia was working at a paper in Costa Rica when he first got involved in an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). For the past few years, the ICIJ has shaken the panorama of tax havens, offshore companies and their periphery of wealthy users, by revealing the murky — and often illegal — practices of international enterprises, celebrities and world leaders.
His role as a software engineer in the Panama Papers made Caruana Galizia a Pulitzer Prize winner in 2017, after the ICIJ had released 11.5 million financial and legal records exposing crime, corruption and wrongdoing committed by public figures. The files involve 140 politicians from more than 50 countries, connected to 21 tax havens.
Having co-founded the Data and Research unit at the ICIJ, Caruana Galizia created platforms for international journalists and the public to navigate, understand, and explore the thousands of documents exposing fraud — “with a lot of resistance,” he says, referring to the fears of the journalists’ network about retaliation and the legal dangers of such exposures.
Besides the Panama Papers, Caruana Galizia was also a lead engineer in other major ICIJ investigations, including the Offshore Leaks, Swiss Leaks, Luxembourg Leaks and Paradise Papers — until a year ago, when his life changed forever.
In October 2017, his mother, renowned investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, was assassinated in their native Malta, sending shockwaves throughout Europe. Concerned about his mother’s safety in the months before her assassination, Matthew had already decided to return to Malta; since her murder, he has been dedicating his waking hours to a quest for justice and the fight for freedom of expression.
Daphne Caruana Galizia, Matthew’s mother, was brutally assassinated in October 2017 in a car bomb murder, because of her fearless reporting on corruption. Photo: Pippa Zammit Cutajar.
Daphne is often described by family members and colleagues as fearless and relentless when she was following threads of corruption, even if they led to the very top of the government. “Nothing could stop her, so they had to murder her,” her son said yesterday in Prishtina. Her investigations primarily targeted organized crime and politicians in the inner circle of Malta’s ruling Labour Party, such as the current prime minister, Joseph Muscat.
Daphne’s work, mostly shared through her personal platform ‘Running Commentary,’ saw that at the moment of her death she was the target of 42 civil defamation actions and five legal proceedings, intended by her critics to scare her, according to Reporters Without Borders. She was also the leading journalist in Malta’s Panama Papers revelations.
After her brutal assassination in a car bomb attack, the organization Forbidden Stories — an international network seeking to continue the investigations of murdered, imprisoned or threatened journalists — has stepped up to help ensure that her unfinished work doesn’t simply disappear.
On the occasion of Matthew’s visit to Prishtina for last night’s edition of K2.0’s Volume Up public talks program, we sat down with him to speak about fighting corruption, freedom of expression and the media today, his search for justice in the aftermath of his mother’s assassination, and more.
Why did your mother, Daphne Caruana Galizia, open her own blog instead of working for a national outlet in Malta? What was the situation like that such a well respected journalist would initiate her own platform to publish her articles?
At the start [of her career] she worked for national media, she started as a reporter for The Times of Malta, and after that she stopped, when my brothers were very young. We were born within one year from each other; I was born in 1986, Andrew in 1987, and Paul in 1988. So when we were toddlers, my mother stopped working as a reporter, but continued writing a column.
She wrote a twice-weekly column, once on Thursday and once on Sunday. First for The Times of Malta, and then for another newspaper called The Malta Independent.
It was in 2008, March 2008, a few months before I left Malta to study. We were gearing up for elections, and my mother was struggling to fit everything into her column. And I remember there was one guy who was a sort of social commentator — he wasn’t really a journalist but he had set up a blog and it became quite widely read — and my mother thought, ‘Why don’t I do the same thing, and I could do it better.’ It would solve this problem, this frustration of not being able to publish often enough, and it would also give her a new platform to express herself more freely.
Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
So, I remember she was sitting at her desk one day, it was during that election period in 2008, and she was spending a lot of time trying to reply to people’s comments on this other blog. Because back then it was a new thing, people would give serious comments and there would be a good debate – it wasn’t yet full of trolls or anything like that. And I remember she was sitting at her desk, I was watching TV with my girlfriend, and she turned around and she said: ‘What would you think about me opening a blog?’ And I said it’s a really good idea.
So we did it right there and then. My girlfriend went home, and I spent the whole day setting up the blog with my mother. Within a day it was done.
At first she didn’t know how to use it and would send me the [blog] post by email and I would publish it. After a few days she got frustrated even with this and she learned how to do it and started doing it herself eventually. And that’s it, from then on, she handled everything.
POLITICO published that her blog was read by 400,000 people on a normal day, while the combined circulation of readers for the national media was 420,000 — practically the same. Did she start her blog also to keep her independence, and to stay away from private control in other national outlets? Was it to preserve her freedom of expression?
It was that too. Media houses are susceptible to manipulation and outside influence. It happens in kind of indirect ways. Some newspapers and online publications get most of their income from government advertising, so they’re beholden to the government in that way.
Others may depend on advertisement from the private sector. This is something I’ve experienced myself, not because I worked in these newspapers as a journalist, but because when I was working at ICIJ with all Maltese journalists there would be problems getting stories out, about Maltese business people, government officials, because the advertisers would threaten to pull the advertising and so on… This was always a problem.
"In many countries it reaches a point where there is simply nothing you can do. If you’re in a threatening situation, nothing that you’re trained to do can guarantee your security. "
For my mother it was this, the influence that politicians and business people have over the newspapers, economic influence, and also through this kind of ‘old boys’’ network. Also the editors were, and still are, very conservative.
The newspapers in Malta are completely unlike newspapers in the rest of Europe, they are just very conservative. They don’t understand kind of that the limits of fair comment within Europe are way beyond what we have in Malta, and that’s what it should be. Malta is very backward, in a lot of senses, but especially in what it considers to be acceptable free speech.
You have been a lead engineer in very important publications, including the Panama Papers, Offshore Papers, and so many other large investigations that have been coming out in the past few years. What can journalists learn from engineers, people who they work alongside?
I think it’s mostly the other way around. I’ve always thought about it the same way, ever since I started working at this kind of intersection of engineering and journalism about eight years ago. It’s much easier for someone who comes from an IT or software engineering background to learn journalism from a journalist, than for a journalist to learn about programming, or IT, etc.
So I always spent more time encouraging programmers to move from say, finance or wherever they are working, into journalism, than spending time encouraging journalists to learn programming or anything related. It is very difficult, it requires a lot of investment and a lot of journalists are feeling frustrated. I think it’s more helpful for programmers to learn and to move into the newsroom.
In the end, does the overlap between engineering and journalism often come down to the necessity to protect sources and anonymity, to protect communications?
In general now, I think that the understanding of the operational and security part is good among journalists; all the training that has been done internationally over the past few years has paid off. I don’t see it as so much of a problem anymore. I think the problem is more non-digital security: where journalists decide to meet sources, figuring out if they have been followed and things like that — the analog stuff.
I think we’ve reached that stage where on the digital side we’ve covered many obstacles and found many solutions to many of the problems, even if they are not ideal. Many of the tools we use for digital security are difficult to work with, but at least they do the job. In many countries it reaches a point where there is simply nothing you can do. If you’re in a threatening situation, nothing that you’re trained to do can guarantee your security.
If you are working in a country like Malta, there is a limit to what you can do. You can’t stop anyone from putting a bomb in your car, you can’t stop someone from shooting you in the street. There is really nothing you can do about that, and it is even difficult to stop someone from following you, or to realize that someone is following you.
Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.
After the assassination of your mother Daphne there was a team of 45 journalists, and 18 media outlets, that joined forces as part of an initiative that they termed the Daphne Project. Could you explain a bit more to us about how it was created and its aim?
It was the idea of a journalist called Laurent Richard. He used to work as a documentary producer for French TV, he had a lot of experience, he had worked in Iraq for a while… And after that he kind of thought of this idea, to set up this organization [Forbidden Stories].
It was only after my mother was assassinated that they really decided to put things into action. He and a person who he is still working with within the organization approached my brothers and I through a mutual friend, and told us about this idea.
He said, ‘I have this idea for an organization that will continue the stories of journalists who are murdered, imprisoned, threatened, or are in any way unable to continue their work, and we want your mother’s investigations [through the Daphne Project] to be the first ones of this organization.
We said yes immediately, because for us it was a huge worry, you know? We were dealing with my mother’s assassination, dealing with all the legal work around that, kind of [having] conversations with NGOs, politicians and so on. And we were worried that we were going to be left with no time or resources to continue my mother’s investigations. So, it felt like exactly what we needed in that moment.
In an interview with your family, one of your brothers said that one of the problems that you’re encountering is that journalists do their part, but the justice system doesn’t follow up with prosecuting those committing the crime, and they are let down, “she was let down.” How do you respond to this situation? Is the Daphne Project a response to that lack of justice?
Yes, but that is really, really the last resort. Again, one of the people who worked in the project said: ‘We are the investigators of last resort. We are the people who come in when the investigators who work for the state aren’t doing their job, or are unable to do their job.’ That’s when we come in, and bring information out into the public domain, to tell the public this is what is happening, these are the crimes that were being perpetrated and were going unpunished.
There is nothing that we as journalists can do about that. We don’t have the ability to prosecute, we don’t have the ability to arrest anyone, but we can bring this information out into the public domain, so you will know that there is impunity, that there is corruption. We cannot do anything beyond that.
"Journalists don’t realize that self-censorship is a problem; they think it’s normal and they don’t report it, they don’t draw attention to it."
It’s been a year since your mother was murdered. In this recent past, has there been a before and after in Malta in terms of creating a climate of fear while reporting corruption and revealing crime?
For me, no, because they’ve already done the worst that they can do, so… Of course there is the potential for further violence and further attacks, but my attitude is: Let’s just continue doing this.
Whereas for journalists in Malta… I think that more than fear, there was a realization that they are completely unequipped, both in terms of skills and experience, but also the institutions they’re working with. They don’t have the backing of the newspaper they work for, even if they want to do good investigations.
There was this moment when I realized that we’re completely unequipped to do this job that my mother, Daphne, was doing. I think they realized this themselves.
And has this influenced how they are reporting on corruption? Has it created a climate of censorship, or rather self-censorship?
Yeah, self-censorship is the base problem, and it’s such a problem that I always forget to mention it, because it’s like normality.
Journalists don’t realize that self-censorship is a problem; they think it’s normal and they don’t report it, they don’t draw attention to it. It’s very rare to come across a journalist in Malta — I can think perhaps of one or two — who realize that it’s a problem. And beyond that, then there are problems of competence.
Malta has no journalism school, it has no culture of investigative journalism — my mother was the only journalist doing investigative journalism in a meaningful way. And she was the only journalist who was free to do it because the others had problems, even when they were competent enough to do meaningful investigative journalism, they didn’t have the backing of the institutions that they worked for.
This past couple of years a number of other journalists have been killed — in Slovakia, in Bulgaria — and their cases have also been very shocking. The latest and perhaps most scandalous was the killing of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Embassy in Turkey. We’re not used to seeing journalists being assassinated in, let’s say, Europe, at least not in the recent past. Journalists have always been threatened and targeted but are we living a period in which journalists are more skilled and more threatening than ever before, because they have more sophisticated tools? Or it is simply that our so-called democracies are becoming tougher and more dangerous?
I think it’s both. That as our institutions have struggled or failed completely to keep up with the fight against corruption and organized crime, we have stepped in as a journalists. But this means that wethen bear the brunt of the attacks, of the reaction.
The thing is that we’ve learned to conduct these investigations in ways that perhaps investigators who worked for the state perhaps haven’t. This means that we have become more of a threat to criminal organizations, to politicians who are part of those criminal organizations and to people who engage in corruption and so on. We have become more of a threat as we have become better at doing our job.
Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.
Especially with journalists like my mother, who are effectively freelancers, they have complete freedom, they use what they want to use. They are also often the only journalists who really have the time to conduct long-running investigations, and these people are more of a threat to the people that they are investigating, but they are also under great threat themselves.
They are often under great threat themselves in situations where the institutions of the state are not doing their job — this was the case for my mother. She had to do these investigations, because the state were not doing them themselves — often because it was complicit in the corruption.
You have participated in many investigations that have truly required collaboration between countries. When you pull the thread, how far can it go? And when it comes to fighting corruption, is it a local-level fight, or does it need to be a transnational fight? How complex can it get?
On the local and national level, you’re trying to change the culture and make people aware of these problems. Within Europe, the corruption is international, it crosses borders within the European Union and into the periphery of Europe.
But again, this problem of investigators and prosecutors failing to do their job is repeated at the international level as well.
We’re of course let down by the European Union. It definitely doesn’t do enough, it hasn’t sufficiently developed the tools that it needs to fight cross-border corruption within the European Union itself, or between the European Union member states and states outside the European Union. The problem on a national level is then repeated within the European Union.
POLITICO says that Daphne’s fear of what she saw Malta becoming made her ‘unapologetically pro-EU.’ Would you have agreed on that? Is the EU the alternative to the dystopian reality of corruption and organized crime? Or do these European democracies just have a good enough façade and legal instruments on their side to make corruption legit?
There are a lot of problems that need fixing in the European Union. A lot of them are how to deal with this, with crime and corruption, I mean, especially grand corruption. The problem with this is that we went into the European Union with a lot of hope. And this is why my mother, and my family in general, we’re so pro-EU. Because we really fought for membership.
What we realized over the years was that the EU was simply not designed to deal with member states like Malta, Bulgaria… it just didn’t have the tools to deal with undeveloped democracies once they became EU members. There simply wasn’t enough done, both before and after EU membership, to reform the system of governance within the country.
The EU is not designed to deal with a situation where the authorities within the member states simply are not effective at all in dealing with, for example, the situation that we have in Malta, where there are no prosecutions, even though the information on corruption is simply out in the public domain. It’s just simply incapable of dealing with that scenario, and also incapable of dealing with a situation in which a journalist is murdered.
But also, it didn’t do enough to force the member states to reform their systems of government to ensure they have adequate checks and balances, to make sure that this simply doesn’t happen in the first place. And Malta has a lot of constitutional problems: The way the justice system works, the prime minister has so much power… he is effectively like a king.
We’ve never had any reforms to kind of break up that power. There was never any serious attempt to really reform Malta’s democracy, and I think this was a huge problem from the get go, from 2004 when we joined the EU. The problems that Malta has now are because of the failure to tackle these problems back then, just kind of turning a blind eye and saying, ‘Let’s just hope for the best.’ Of course, that’s not a good attitude, you have to prepare for the worst rather than hope for the best, and this is what the EU failed to do.
"The EU made a huge mistake in turning a blind eye to Malta for such a long time. I think that this should be an enormous fear for Kosovo as well. "
Unless you fully prepare the country before EU membership, with all these checks and balances, with all these reforms, and even culturally, then it will simply be a disaster.
I mean what happened when Malta joined the European Union is that we entered a free trade zone. Huge amounts of money are freely coming in and out of the country. Banks, politicians, they’re all free to participate in these kind of monetary transactions where amounts of money are free to pass in and out of the country unchecked. And huge amounts of money, also coming in as EU funding, with very few controls, very few checks, with inadequate regulation…
There is also the fact that our country is kind of an offshore sector within the EU, and this makes it very attractive for people to engage in these activities. If they can bank in Malta, because it’s poorly regulated, then they have an easy back door to the rest of the European Union.
They can bring in money from wherever, from Lebanon let’s say, park it in Malta, and then use it to buy property in London very easily. This is the thing. And this of course corrupts our entire political system, and it will eventually corrupt more political systems within the European Union itself.
Because countries that are toxic, like Malta, Bulgaria, Romania… the problems themselves don’t remain contained to the country itself, they spread. The EU made a huge mistake in turning a blind eye to Malta for such a long time. I think that this should be an enormous fear for Kosovo as well.
You’re based back in Malta now, and have left your work at the ICIJ to dedicate your time to advocating for a public inquiry in your country, and seeking justice for the assassination of your mother. What does your future hold when you look ahead? Are you now completely committed to fighting for freedom of expression in Malta and internationally?
Now, yes, but how my brothers and I see it is our main aim is justice for my mother’s assassination, and also justice for her stories. What we don’t want is that nothing happens, that it would all be for nothing.
Of course, we want the people who perpetrated this to go to jail for a long time. But what we don’t want is for there to be convictions, but for my mother to have died in vain because nothing happened as a result of her reporting.
"We need to have an international anti-corruption court, a prosecutor that has jurisdiction over individuals within member states, specifically to fight corruption."
What we see is that justice for her assassination will improve the state of freedom of expression in Malta, internationally and in general. And justice for her reporting will improve the state of the rule of law in the country, and it will drag the country itself forward. These are the two main aims, justice for the stories, and justice for the assassination. I spend all my time on that.
I think the kind of pressure that we are creating will improve things within Europe itself. I think the EU is also learning that it needs more mechanisms, that it needs more executive power over member states.
In what way can the EU increase its executive power over member states, in the context of fighting corruption?
I don’t think that you can have a free trade zone, a zone of complete economic freedom without some kind of cross-border executive authority from the body that supervises this free trade zone. We need to have an international anti-corruption court, a prosecutor that has jurisdiction over individuals within member states, specifically to fight corruption.
Ultimately, I think that the European Union needs its own ‘FBI,’ and I am surprised by the number of people who ask, ‘But can’t Europol do anything?’
Europol is a political organization. It has no executive power, it cannot conduct its own investigations, it cannot bring its own prosecutions, it cannot hold European members states to account in any way — it’s like a call center. The only thing it can do is to be a sort of call center for the police, put people in touch with each other, that’s the only thing it can do. That’s it.
Eventually we need our own FBI within the EU, but the first step toward this is having an anti-corruption prosecutor, and a court that has jurisdiction over member states.
This would help journalists too, because it means that we have another check. It’s all about diffusion of responsibility, in a kind of positive way. If the journalist is the only person who is holding corrupted individuals to account, then it’s almost guaranteed that they are going to get killed.
This is what happened to my mother. No one else was holding the people she was investigating to account. So all they had to do was murder her to ensure that they enjoyed complete impunity.
If you have prosecutors, kind of international prosecutors, who are beyond the influence of these people within the member state, then you have an additional check. These people will have to make a calculation, “If I kill a journalist, I will draw more attention to myself, and also there is the possibility of this prosecutor actually coming after me.”
This is important, we need these other checks. The problem in Malta and other countries is that the people my mother was investigating corrupted the entire system.
Your mother’s assassination was shocking internationally. Was there a reaction in Malta? Did all of this create a resistance? A wake up call?
Definitely not as much as it should have, but it’s the beginning.
Over here in Kosovo, there is already a civil society that is detached from partisan politics. Whereas when my mother was killed there weren’t strong civil society organizations, young people didn’t understand the purpose of civil society and political parties have completely captured this need that people have to participate in civil activism. If you were an activist, you were a political party activist. So, it’s the first time that people are becoming detached now.
I hope this grows, but it’s up to us. It has to grow.K
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted in English.