A Murdered Journalist's Son Fights Back to Revive Her Craft
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s reviving corruption-busting reporting in a country that needs it.
By Deborah Bonello
A man sits on a curb on a sloping street in Valletta, the Maltese capital, drinking a beer on a warm summer’s night. A woman walking by with her teenage son stops. She’s sorry to interrupt, she says, and the man scrambles to his feet to clasp her hand and accept her encouragement and thanks.
Matthew Caruana Galizia, 33, is a reluctant celebrity in Malta. He sits back down, humbled by the attention he had never imagined he’d receive — not in his worst nightmares. Caruana was catapulted into the spotlight when his mother, Daphne, the island state’s most prominent investigative journalist at the time, was assassinated in October 2017: A bomb planted beneath the driver’s seat of her car exploded as she drove away from the family home.
That explosion, which Matthew heard and was one of the first to respond to, changed his life forever.
The oldest of three sons, Caruana leads the campaign for justice in his mother’s murder. (Three men have been arrested and charged, but the trial could be as much as two years away.) That campaign has made him a prominent face in the sunny, tourist-friendly European Union state that over the years Daphne helped expose as a money-laundering center and den of corruption.
If he fears for his life, it doesn’t show.
After the encounter with the well-wisher, Caruana continues to speak slowly and deliberately, in the distinctive accented English of most Maltese, about what came after his mother’s murder. Caruana initially looked unlikely to follow in Caruana Galizia’s footsteps — he was a computer geek from a young age, and his mother encouraged it, sending him to programming classes with adults when he was a preteen.
When Caruana left Malta to complete a master’s degree in mainland Europe in 2008, he remembers “thinking of Malta as a problem solved. We had just come out of the major battle for EU membership and … I thought we could relax and our future was secure. But as we know now, I was very badly mistaken.”
It was during a fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley, when he realized he could combine his love of programming and data with journalism. A stint at the Financial Times in London didn’t work out, he says, because “data journalism hadn’t been invented yet,” and he was stuck on the technical side. So he left to join a team of investigative journalists at Costa Rica’s national paper, La Nación.
It was Giannina Segnini, who now directs the data journalism program at Columbia University, who gave him the gig. Their investigative team processed the data and developed the interactive application for the Offshore Leaks project, published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in 2013. The project disclosed details of more than 130,000 offshore accounts and investigated tax evasion and money laundering in offshore locations.
Segnini says Caruana was a fundamental part of the pioneering project. But when La Nación wanted to censor some of their work, Segnini resigned, and the rest of the team, including Caruana, soon followed. ICIJ Director Gerard Ryle took him on.
“Matthew’s very intelligent and quite brilliant — he doesn’t always turn up to meetings on time, but he’s very thoughtful. When you have his focus, he’s genius level,” says Ryle. It was at ICIJ that Caruana’s work began to mirror and complement that of his mother, as the network was ramping up to publishing the follow-up to the Panama Papers, the Paradise Papers. Daphne’s own independent investigations were published on her popular blog, Running Commentary.
Daphne Caruana Galizia’s reporting — and the 2015 Panama Papers scandal — went right to the top. She connected Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and other powerful politicians and figures to corruption (an inquiry by a Maltese magistrate cleared Muscat of wrongdoing in 2018). After Daphne’s revelations and the ominous silence from the government, her fear for her safety grew.
“You could feel in the air that something was deeply wrong,” says Caruana. “I think for a while she thought of leaving … She just couldn’t let them get away with it … But her murder was a possibility that I simply never considered.”
It altered his life irrevocably.
“You grow up very quickly when you see your mother being murdered,” Ryle says. “I would say that he has gone from being a journalist and neutral to an advocate, and he had very deep beliefs before that.”
Since Daphne’s death, the Daphne Project — a group of 45 journalists representing 18 news organizations from 15 countries — has carried on her work, independent of her family. Caruana has created a foundation in his late mother’s name aimed at getting justice in her case, but he also wants to help improve the skills and climate for investigative journalism in Malta, which is sorely lacking.
In the works are education courses for investigative journalists and more databases — this time on organized crime groups in Malta. Following his mother’s murder, Caruana left the country a number of times on journalism fellowships and the like, but now he is committed to staying and implementing change. He says that so far he has received no threats for doing so. If he fears for his life, it doesn’t show.
Change will be hard to come by. “Corruption stories are not very popular stories, unfortunately — I feel that people don’t give a damn about these stories,” says Matthew Xuereb, an assistant editor at the Times of Malta. “Because people are comfortable, I think.”
Segnini, Caruana’s former boss, is more optimistic about the future of this kind of journalism and Caruana’s role in encouraging it. Caruana can “bring together all this young talent that needs more guidance on how to protect yourself and collaborate with others,” Segnini says. “He has the capacity and knowledge and attitude to become an inspiration for these journalists.”
Perhaps he already is.
- Deborah Bonello, OZY Author Contact Deborah Bonello