Mandatory Credit: Photo by DOMENIC AQUILINA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10485775ad) A memorial to Daphne Caruana Galizia at the Great Siege Monument in Valletta , Malta, 26 November 2019. People demonstrate in Valletta following the resignations of Minister Konrad Mizzi and Prime Minister Joseph Muscat's Head of Staff Keith Schembri and Minister Chris Cardona suspending himself from any activities of his party (Partit Laburista) as Malta police investigations into the murder of late journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017 continue. Demonstrations following Maltese ministers resigning amid investigations into murder of late journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017, Valletta, Malta - 26 Nov 2019
A memorial to investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was killed by a car comb in 2017 after exposing Maltese corruption © Domenic Aquilina/EPA/Shutterstock

The killing of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in a car bomb in 2017 shocked Europe. Now the murder investigation has embroiled some of the island’s most senior officials. The prime minister’s chief of staff and a senior minister have resigned. It is vital that the investigation is brought to a conclusion, and those who ordered the crime brought to justice. Doing so would chip away at the culture of impunity that too often surrounds attacks on journalists, and strike a blow for the rule of law in the EU.

Caruana Galizia was tireless in exposing Maltese corruption. Her reporting on the Panama Papers tied leading local politicians to questionable shell companies; her work even helped to trigger early elections in 2017. Three men suspected of planting the bomb that scattered the remains of her car across a field near Valletta were arrested and are awaiting trial. But police have struggled to establish who ordered the murder.

An apparent advance came with last week’s arrest of a suspected middleman in the case — since granted a presidential pardon in exchange for information. Hours after the arrest, Yorgen Fenech, a prominent businessman, was detained attempting to leave the island pre-dawn on his luxury yacht, then later released on bail. By Tuesday, two senior officials with alleged financial ties to the businessman — Keith Schembri, the premier’s chief of staff, and tourism minister Konrad Mizzi — stood down.

A Reuters investigation last year alleged that Panama companies owned by the two officials expected to receive up to £2m for unspecified services from a Dubai company, 17 Black Limited — which Daphne Caruana Galizia had written about months before her death. Reuters concluded that 17 Black was owned by Mr Fenech, which he refused to confirm or deny. There is no evidence any money was sent, and Mr Schembri and Mr Mizzi have denied wrongdoing. None of the three has been accused of an offence.

Prime minister Joseph Muscat has said he is hopeful the probe will solve the murder, and that recent developments showed there was “no impunity” in Malta. Given potential conflicts of interest, however, he should firmly distance himself from the investigation. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has already accused Mr Muscat of “personally protecting” the two officials during years of questions over their behaviour. If they face any charges, he should stand down.

Maltese authorities should also invite foreign judges and prosecutors to join and supervise the probe. That would bolster domestic and international confidence that Malta’s investigators can operate without political interference, and that there can be no cover-up of any government involvement in the journalist’s murder.

Much is riding on the outcome. Reporters Without Borders found at least 80 journalists were killed worldwide last year in connection with their work, the most since the watchdog began collecting figures in 1995. More than half were deliberately targeted. If the EU is to be any kind of beacon of free speech and democracy, it cannot see such incidents go unpunished in any member state.

The Maltese case is a reminder, too, that threats to EU rule of law come not just from “illiberal” regimes in central European members. They may emanate from the pernicious influence of organised crime, official corruption and money laundering across the 28-nation bloc. Countering these means protecting not just the police, investigators and judges who prosecute crimes, but the media who work to uncover them.

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