A sunny place for shady people How Malta became one of the most curious and corrupt places in the world

Ryan Murdock

Book - 2024

"The car bomb assassination of Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017 shocked the European Union and put the world's spotlight on an island so small that few knew it was an independent country and even fewer could find it on the map. But Caruana Galizia's death didn't come as a surprise to those who lived there. Ryan Murdock had visions of living a slow-paced island life on the Mediterranean while writing about his experiences, so in 2011 he moved from Canada to Malta. To the casual visitor, Malta is a sleepy place with sun-soaked shorelines and ancient fortified harbors. Murdock imagined it to be an archipelago island of warm weather, gorgeous views, busy cafes, and grilled fish dinners. On the ...surface, it was. The six years Murdock spent in Malta revealed an insular culture whose fundamental baseline is amoral familism, a worldview in which any action taken to benefit one's family or oneself is justifiable, regardless of whether it is legal or ethical. In such a place murder may or may not be wrong, depending on what one thinks of another's politics. This pervasive perspective created a culture of corruption that rose all the way to the top of the island nation. The office of the prime minister was implicated in Caruana Galizia's murder, and the investigation continues to reveal a government mired in money laundering, human trafficking, fuel smuggling, and the sale of EU passports to Russian and Middle Eastern oligarchs. Interspersed with personal narrative, Murdock delves into Malta's unique geopolitical, cultural, ethnic, and religious history-one that transformed it from a hub of prehistoric rule into a modern society where a powerful cabal of political and business leaders nearly got away with murder"--

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San Antonio, Texas : Trinity University Press [2024]
Main Author
Ryan Murdock (author)
Physical Description
vii, 262 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 261-262).
  • Prologue
  • 1. Island Life
  • First Promise of the South
  • Cat Ladies and Shrugging Men
  • Melita's Inferno
  • The Feast of the Exploding Village
  • Gentleman Pirates
  • 2. Strange Crimes
  • Hell on Wheels
  • Dr. Dalli Speaks the Past
  • Cracks Appear
  • Trash Can at Worlds End
  • The Island Is Dead, Surviving on Memories
  • 3. Daphne
  • Madonna! What Happened?
  • Parties in Separate Rooms
  • It Was a Blind and Broken Time
  • Books Just Furnish a Room
  • The Year of the Oligarchs
  • 4. Point of No Return
  • Amoral Familism
  • Point of No Return
  • It All Falls Down
  • Truth Comes Out
  • Bomb-Making Brothers
  • 5. The Wages of Sin
  • Everyone Was on the Take
  • The Public Inquiry
  • The Aftermath
  • Epilogue
  • Cast of Characters
  • Chronology
  • Further Reading
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

A culture of lawlessness infects the Mediterranean island of Malta from high government offices to the lowliest villages, according to this furious exposé-cum-travelogue. Travel writer Murdock (Vagabond Dreams), who lived in Malta from 2011 to 2017, spotlights the 2017 car bombing there that killed his colleague Daphne Caruana Galizia after her muckraking journalism implicated then--prime minister Joseph Muscat in financial scandals. Murdock backgrounds this absorbing (and pretty gruesome) true-crime story--"The first explosion tore off her leg.... She'd only just begun to scream when... a larger explosion engulfed her car in a ball of fire"--with typical travel-writer exasperation at local quirks, like anarchic traffic and the maddening drumbeat of fireworks, which turn gradually more sinister. Murdock reports that he was the object of covert watchfulness wherever he went, his house was vandalized, and his wife was shot at by poachers. Complaining of a society-wide ethos of "amoral familism," in which people grab what they can for their families via nepotism, influence-peddling, and theft of public funds, Murdock writes with a biting wit (the island's nightlife district is a vista of "abandoned Burger King containers and vomit slicks") that shades into somber lyricism ("Those... village streets felt huddled and forlorn, heavy with... old fears"). It's a potent portrayal of a society mired in corruption. Photos. (Apr.)

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I was visiting family in Canada when I got a late-evening text from my wife on October 16, 2017: "They killed Daphne with bomb." "Daphne" was Daphne Caruana Galizia, an independent Maltese journalist whose investigations into government corruption had made her a target of the country's rich and powerful--especially the ruling Labour Party, which saw her as its only real opposition. The last story she had written was about a court appearance by the prime minister's chief of staff, Keith Schembri, earlier that day. It ended with the words "There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate." She published her article, closed her laptop, and stood up to go to the bank, where she'd been cashing checks on her husband's account because hers was still frozen by the economy minister. Before leaving her peaceful hilltop home surrounded by gardens in rural Bidnija, she set a plate of tomatoes and mozzarella in front of her son Matthew, a data journalist who had shared a Pulitzer Prize as part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that broke the Panama Papers, an expose of the secret world of offshore tax havens. The two were sifting through a database of 11.5 million leaked financial and legal records to figure out why two top government officials opened companies in Panama within days of the Labour Party's election to power. She ran out the door, then rushed back in to grab her checkbook. "Okay, I'm really going this time," she said, smiling at Matthew. The explosion happened minutes after she drove away. She was fifty-three years old. A neighbor who saw Daphne driving down the hill toward him told police he immediately sensed that something was wrong. "She appeared to be panicking," he said. "I heard a small bang, like fireworks. Then I heard a piercing scream." The first explosion tore off her leg and scattered debris nearby, but she'd only just begun to scream when, seconds later, a larger explosion engulfed her car in a ball of fire. "I saw parts of her ripped off," the neighbor said. "Her hand flew off. It was terrible. Then I saw blood . . . I realized they were human parts. I could do nothing. It was so cruel." The blast shook the house where Matthew was hunched over his laptop. He ran out the door in a panic and saw a column of black smoke boiling into the sky from somewhere down the hill. His legs were shaking so badly he could barely run. The road was on fire when he reached the scene, where bloody pieces of his mother were scattered across a field. The car's horn continued to blare as he ran back and forth, frantic but unable to approach the inferno. He was looking for something to pry open the door when he saw a severed leg on the ground. Two young police officers arrived minutes later. One grabbed a fire extinguisher and ran toward the smoke but then stopped and dropped it on the ground. Matthew tried to take it from him, screaming, "What are you doing? What are you doing?" The officer placed a hand on his shoulder and said, "There's nothing we can do." As they stood there watching the car go up in flames, the other policeman began to cry. Firefighters and Civil Protection Department officials described finding a person inside the burning car and pieces of flesh scattered around the bomb site, including "a leg ripped apart from the thigh." Civil protection officer Frank Sammut said, "I saw a human hand on the passenger side and a burning figure inside. Nothing could be done." Firefighters would return two days later to chop down a tree so investigators could search its branches for human remains. Photos of Daphne's burned body parts were circulated on WhatsApp and other digital messaging services within hours of her death. They were taken at the crime scene, evidently by police. At around the same time, police sergeant Raymond Mifsud posted a message to his Facebook page that read, "Everyone gets what they deserve, cow dung! Feeling happy :)" He would eventually be suspended with pay but never dismissed. Loyalists in closed Labour Party Facebook groups, whose membership included senior government officials, celebrated her death with statements like "ma tistax rip ghax saret bicciet lanqas tista titqaleb ahseb u ara carma is a bich [sic]" ("She can't rest in peace because she's in pieces, she can't even be buried, karma is a bitch"). The killing made headlines around the world as readers with no understanding of Malta tried to make sense of the targeted murder of a journalist in a European Union member state. Prime minister Joseph Muscat appeared on CNN, where he told Christiane Amanpour he would "leave no stone unturned" in finding out who killed the woman he described as his "harshest critic." He seemed to have difficulty suppressing a smirk as he spoke. His wife was more direct in an exclusive media interview nine months later. "If there is someone who wants Daphne Caruana Galizia to be alive today, that is me," Michelle Muscat said. "When I heard the news about what happened to her, I think I was more sorry than her own family. Her family could go on to make her a saint; but at the time I said to myself, 'Now I will have to live with her lies.' I want her alive." The prime minister issued his official statement as the shell of Daphne's car lay smoldering in a field. "Everyone is aware that Ms. Caruana Galizia was one of my harshest critics, politically and personally, as she was for others, too," he wrote. "However, I can never use, in any way, this fact to justify, in any possible way, this barbaric act that goes against civilization and all dignity." Within days protestors besieged his office at the Auberge de Castille demanding justice for Daphne and an end to the impunity at the heart of his corruption-plagued administration. His response was to fly to Dubai to promote Malta's controversial citizenship by investment program, known on the island as cash-for-passports. From 2011 to 2017 I led a secluded life in small villages on the island of Malta. To the casual visitor, Malta is a sleepy place of sun-soaked shorelines and fortified harbors, an island of busy cafés and grilled fish dinners with chilled white wine. And it was--on the surface. In the beginning I found the cultural clashes of island life comical, as the small hidden assumptions both Maltese and foreigner made about one another revealed misunderstandings that verged on the surreal. Heated emotions gave way to shrugs and laughter as the best laid plans always seemed to go wrong. There was something endearing about the way bodged-together solutions eventually worked out. We lived surrounded by every era of European history in an easygoing place where bureaucratic rules and minor traffic laws could be safely ignored. The kindness of friends outweighed the frustrations of trying to get things done in a society where reliability depended on someone else's whims. But this sunny surface concealed dark undercurrents that expressed themselves through car bombs and systemic corruption. I watched as an organized criminal network took over the government of a European Union member state with the widespread support of its citizens. The seeds of this takeover were deeply embedded in the culture, ingrained in a worldview called amoral familism, and stirred to festering malignancy under the leadership of prime minister Dom Mintoff. But it was Joseph Muscat who transformed the tiny island nation into a kleptocracy. On that timeless, sun-struck rock in the middle of the Sicily Channel, things go on changing, but they mostly stay the same. The clues to what came later were there in every village interaction. All it took was someone rash enough to rip out the brakes. This is the story of what I saw. Note: The names and identifying details of my friends have been changed to protect their privacy. Our conversations, and the insights they shared with me, are reproduced from memory and notes made after the fact. The details of corruption recounted here have been widely reported on the island. The names of historical figures, politicians, criminals, and alleged criminals remain the same. Excerpted from A Sunny Place for Shady People: How Malta Became One of the Most Curious and Corrupt Places in the World by Ryan Murdock All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.