In an exclusive interview with Byline Times, Malta’s former Justice Minister Owen Bonnici reveals how he believes the country is responding with changes to international criticism over its handling of the murder of its most famous journalist.
The assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia was the “worst thing that could have happened to our government”, according to Malta’s former Justice Minister who believes the country is fulfilling its promise to “get to the bottom of the murder”.
In an exclusive interview with Byline Times at the Maltese High Commission in London, Owen Bonnici said that Malta “promised to get to the bottom of the murder, and the alleged mastermind and alleged perpetrators were arraigned to court” and that this was “a very important part to mention” amidst ongoing international criticism of the country over its handling of the investigative journalist’s death.
53-year-old Caruana Galizia was Malta’s leading journalist who reported on politics and corruption for 30 years. She was killed in a car bomb outside her home in Malta on 16 October 2017.
Bonnici said that she was a “a very good investigative journalist” but that there were “two faces to the same coin”.
“Everyone was shocked when she was murdered,” he said. “Disliking her style of writing is one thing but a murder is the worst thing that could have happened to our Government… She had a very challenging pen and she was very good at investigating stories, but she had also, aside from that, made very pungent remarks about people and entering into their own personal life. So you have two faces to the same coin.”
The 39-year-old said that some of the criticism of Malta over the murder had been justified but that “we should have given even more information and been more forthcoming with the media”.
“But something like this had never happened in Malta so it was a first for us so we were at a loss on how to tackle it with the foreign media, that is something which we failed,” he added.
Bonnici said he “had chills down his spine” when he first heard that Keith Schembri, the Chief of Staff to Malta’s then Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, had been mentioned in connection with the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.
“It sends shivers down my spine because having the Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister being mentioned and arrested and, of course, it is not something which I took lightly,” he told Byline Times. “I was very concerned. Having said that, I have trust in the police and I am sure they are going to investigate thoroughly.”
He said that the first time he personally heard about Schembri’s possible involvement in the murder was when the pardon for Melvin Thema was discussed. Schembri was arrested in November after being named by Thelma, a middleman, who confessed and received a pardon from Muscat.
“When Joseph Muscat gave the pardon to Melvin Thelma, that was the first time I heard Mr Schembri’s name was suspected in all this,” he said. “This is despite the fact that he was Justice Minister and had meetings with the Attorney General and received updates for EU statements.
In the public inquiry into the journalist’s death, police confirmed this month that Schembri remains under official investigation.
“He was Carrying the Responsibility”
Yorgen Fenech, a wealthy Maltese businessman, has been charged with Caruana Galizia’s murder and his trial or compilation of evidence is ongoing.
Many other Maltese Labour Government officials, including the then Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, Keith Schembri and the Deputy Police Commissioner Silvio Valletta, have been found to have intimate personal relationships with him – a matter currently under investigation by Malta’s new administration.
Muscat invited the suspected mastermind to his private birthday party and received expensive gifts of a limited Rolex watch and vintage wines, after the business magnate had been named by investigators as a person of interest in the murder investigation and which Muscat did not declare to the authorities.
Bonnici told Byline Times that he did not know Fenech. “I never met Yorgen Fenech,” he said. “I never had meetings with him ever. I think once he approached me in an airport lounge and said hello to me. But I do not know him.”
After two years of ignoring calls for his resignation as Prime Minister, Muscat quit following endless protests in the country which intensified after the arrests of Fenech and Schembri. He remains a backbencher, but is thought to be seeking private employment in order to leave government for good.
Bonnici, who is now Education Minister in the Government of the new Prime Minister Robert Abela, said Muscat had done the right thing by resigning. “Muscat said in his resignation speech on television that he was proud of the case and that it led to the alleged mastermind and murderers,” he told Byline Times. “What he said was that he was shouldering the mistakes that other people made. So he was carrying the responsibility and so the right thing to do was resign.”
Despite criticism of Malta’s investigation into Caruana Galizia’s murder, and concerns over the rule of law, press freedom and accountability, Bonnici said and that Abela has already shown that things are changing in the country.
“The new Prime Minster has changed things quite a lot, and most of the things he has done so far are inspired by the criticism we are receiving,” he said.