“They killed the journalist. Not the message”
Journalists Daphne Caruana Galizia and Miroslava Breach were both killed – one in Malta, the other in Mexico – for the same reason: to prevent their controversial investigations from seeing the light of day. But their murderers will not succeed in their mission to suppress their work, as the international network of journalists "Forbidden Stories" is continuing their research and publishing their stories. Read More
53-year-old Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was brutally murdered on 16 October, 2017.
She was killed to quash the revealing reports she had been writing about the corruption plaguing the Maltese government. That autumn afternoon, a limpet bomb attached to her car put an end to her life. But not to her investigation.
Around the same time in France, Forbidden Stories was born, conceived as a network whose purpose is to continue the work of journalists who have been censored, threatened, imprisoned and even killed, like Daphne. The first European Union journalist ever killed by a car bomb, her tragic death was the starting point for this initiative’s first major project.
Her murderers certainly never expected 45 journalists from 18 international media organisations to team up with one purpose: to keep the stories that Daphne wanted to tell the world alive. The project has shed light on an essential part of Daphne’s work, namely her investigations linking Maltese businessmen and politicians to cases of corruption and money laundering.
A bomb attached to her car put an end to her life. But not to her investigation.
Keeping the stories alive
“Thanks to the leaked Panama Papers, before she died Daphne had discovered that two close associates of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat – his chief of staff, Keith Schembri, and the Minister of Tourism and Energy, Konrad Mizzi – had offshore companies in Panama,” Jules Giraudat, a journalist with Forbidden Stories and a contributor to the Daphne Project, reports. “Another company, 17 Black located in Dubai, also appeared in the papers she had access to. She assumed that the purpose of that company was to bribe Maltese politicians to obtain public contracts. So it is possible that her intention to reveal the head of this secret society was one of the reasons for her murder.”
The team of journalists working on the Daphne Project spent six months evaluating her documents and police investigation files. They visited her family and friends, talked to lawyers and parliamentarians, policemen and financial officers.
Then they launched the first series of articles in international publications, like The Guardian, Reuters, Die Zeit, Sueddeutsche, Le Monde, La Repubblica, and The New York Times - to name just a few - publishing long reports focusing on Daphne Galizia's research findings and on the police investigation into her death. But like Daphne, they hadn't yet identified the owner of 17 Black. So the team kept digging deeper into the case.
When Forbidden Stories went to press again in October 2018, one year after Daphne’s murder, it was with a key revelation: the name of the owner of 17 Black, Yorgen Fenech.
Daphne was about to publish a story on corruption involving members of the government and important businessmen.
His business group had been granted the right to build a gas power station on Malta by the island’s government in 2013. One of the politicians allegedly awaiting payments from 17 Black, Konrad Mizzi, had been Malta’s energy minister at the time and had supported the power station concession. “Daphne was about to publish a story on large-scale corruption involving members of the government and one of Malta’s most important businessmen,” Giraudat concludes.
From Malta to Mexico
In 2017 another incident took place, this time far from Malta, in Mexico, where a reporter died for reasons similar to those that led to Daphne's death. 54-year-old Miroslava Breach, who worked for the newspapers La Jornada and Norte de Ciudad Juárez, had been reporting on the links between drug cartels and Mexican politicians for years. On March 23 of that year, she was shot eight times and died from her wounds. In one of her last published articles, she had reported on public security directors allegedly linked to criminal groups in the city of Chinipas in Chihuahua.
Narco-politics is a problem endemic to Mexico in general, and to Chihuahua in particular, one of the country’s most violent states.
Drug traffickers seek to take control of a territory and its institutions by placing cartel members in political positions as high as even the mayor's office of a region. In one of her reports, Miroslava had published the names of the candidates the drug traffickers had put up for local elections.
In September 2019, a group of Mexican journalists called 'Colectivo 23 de Marzo' started the Miroslava Project, in which Forbidden Stories collaborated with the Bellingcat open source research portal and the Latin American Center for Journalistic Research. Its director, Colombian journalist María Teresa Ronderos, says the Miroslava Project had a threefold objective: “The main aim was to remember and honor her life and memory, but we also wanted to recover the stories she had reported on, as the Prosecutor's Office had not continued to investigate them.”
Miroslava Breach’s information pointed to the Los Salazares criminal gang, which operates alongside the Sinaloa cartel, co-directed by famous drug trafficker Joaquin El Chapo Guzman. She wanted to show how this group enjoyed impunity thanks to the support of the Mexican authorities.
Miroslava Breach had been reporting on the links between drug cartels and Mexican politicians for years.
“The third aim of the Miroslava Project was to review the judicial investigation into the murder,” Ronderos said. The team identified loose ends in the investigation: politicians who were not questioned, evidence that was ignored, clues pointing to the suspects that were not investigated.
Miroslava Breach’s murder was allegedly ordered by Juan Carlos Moreno Ochoa, nicknamed El Larry, who was convicted in March 2020. But for Forbidden Stories, this doesn’t mean the case has been solved. “The perpetrator was convicted but not the mastermind, and the prosecution has not said it will pursue the suspected accomplices.” According to the journalist collective, evidence suggests that El Larry received the order to kill from the Salazars themselves. However, the name of the real instigator remains unknown and so does his or her connection to political actors.
Daphne died for being right
Impunity is a huge problem when it comes to assassinations of Mexican journalists, a problem that “continues to be the norm and prevents justice from triumphing,” as Alfonso Armada, the director of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Spain, puts it. He explains that the relationship between organized crime and certain political and administrative authorities seriously threatens journalists’ security: “99 per cent of these cases go unpunished and the crimes remain uninvestigated.”
For a while it seemed as if the perpetrators in the Daphne Galizia case were also going to go unpunished. One year after the murder, the authorities had made little progress in their investigation. The police had arrested the alleged bombers, but the investigation into the mastermind behind it had come to a halt.
Yet in November 2019, over two years after Daphne Galizia’s death, the turning point finally came when a middleman was arrested and named Fenech – the owner of 17 Black whose name Forbidden Stories had published in 2018 – as the person who had paid for the murder. The investigations set off a storm: the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, resigned, as well as Minister for Tourism and Energy Konrad Mizzi – the two politicians who were to get kickbacks from Black 17 according to Daphne’s research. Minister of Finance Chris Cardona also stepped down when it was reported that witnesses had seen him with the bomber. Thousands took to the streets of Malta in protest. At the start of 2020, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Chief of Police Lawrence Cutajar both left their posts as well.
Since summer of 2020, Yorgan Fenech has sat in the defendant’s chair – and it is entirely possible that some politicians will also have to answer for their involvement in a court of law. Daphne Galizia was correct in her assumptions. And Forbidden Stories has managed to prove that the journalist was condemned to death because she planned to speak the truth.
The instigators in the Miroslava case are not yet known. But Forbidden Stories will keep investigating. In doing so, it sends a message to enemies of press freedom around the world:
“Even if you succeed in stopping the messenger, you cannot stop the message.”