We must do better to protect whistleblowers and investigators like Daphne Caruana Galizia

Murdered investigative journalist Daphne Carauna Galizia, outside the Libyan embassy in Valletta, Malta. Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

The killing of the Maltese investigative journalist and blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia in a car bomb near her home recalls other similar killings, such as the cold-blooded murder of Italian crime reporter Giancarlo Siani, shot 10 times in the head in 1985, or the assassination of Russian journalist Anna Stepanovna Politkovskaja, shot and killed in her Moscow apartment building in 2006.

Caruana Galizia was brave enough to expose corruption in Maltese politics, including revelations that may have prompted prime minister Joseph Muscat to call early elections this year. She accused Muscat and his wife among others of holding secret offshore bank accounts to hide payments they received from the ruling family of Azerbaijan, information which came from the Panama Papers leak. Muscat denied the claims.

The Azerbaijan regime has been accused of using a sophisticated system of lobbying and paying off western officials to blunt international criticism of its actions at home. This practice has sparked great concern at the Council of Europe.

Caruana Galizia’s continuous, vital work of exposing corrupt practices led the website Politico to include her among the 28 individuals who are shaping, shaking and stirring Europe in 2017. Her murder demands some reflection on the effectiveness of current anti-corruption strategy in Europe.

Corrupt practices still stalk Europe

Global efforts to fight corruption led to key international legal instruments such as the United Nations Convention Against Corruption and the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention, which in turn have resulted in the implementation of legislation at national level such as the UK Bribery Act 2010. But corruption still appears widespread on the old continent and pervades every aspect of European society.

Only recently, seven tax law professors were arrested in Italy having allegedly plotted to have their protégés appointed to key academic posts. This was just the tip of the iceberg: the investigation subsequently unveiled the presence of systemic corruption in the Italian academy, with academics also accused of evaluating students not based on merit but on their shared personal, professional, or group interests.

Over the last decade, the most significant steps forward in the fight against corruption have been made thanks to the courage of leakers, whistleblowers and investigative journalists, who help bring the most serious allegations of misconduct to light. They are the true heroes of our time, and the ineffectiveness of internal controls and external auditors mean we must rely on them to identify widespread corruption. So we should do our best – much more than we do – to ensure they are supported and protected, and react strongly against any attempt to suppress them.

Stronger medicine required

We must treat corruption with the importance it deserves and adopt more effective strategies to fight its spread. We should think about fighting corruption through the adoption of investigative techniques and the related legal instruments developed in order to combat organised crime, like those implemented in Italy against the Mafia. In too many European states, including the UK, there is still much reluctance to use effective investigative tools such as telephone tapping and audio surveillance on a large scale.

There also needs to be within Europol a centralised, highly trained and well funded intelligence and investigative unit tasked with conducting autonomous investigations on corruption and organised crime in cases where there are doubts that they would be performed in an effective way by the local authorities of a member state. For example, where there are insufficient resources for investigators, a lack of law enforcement expertise, or where high-level politicians or public officials are enmeshed in corruption.

This is especially true if we take into consideration that, as a recent study has demonstrated, even a single ineffective or weak public institution can make the entire law enforcement system of a country vulnerable to corruption and organised crime. It makes no sense that a European prime minister has to turn to the FBI for help, as Joseph Muscat in Malta has done.

There is an intimate connection between corruption and organised crime. A corrupt environment is one in which criminal organisations can thrive. Criminal organisations often use corruption as a means to ensure the protection of illegal activities. This leads the economic interests of corrupt politicians, public officials and corporate executives to mingle with those of criminal organisations, creating a complex web of shared interests in illicit schemes hidden behind the veil of shell companies and offshore tax heavens. When this occurs, the wrongdoers do not hesitate to resort to violence to cover up their crimes and defend their economic interests.

Too many honest people have lost their lives because they revealed the connections between criminals and politicians. It is not surprising that, of over 1,250 journalists killed since 1992, 46% were covering politics and 20% were covering corruption, whereas only 15% were reporting on other crimes. We must not forget those who paid with their lives for attempting to bring about a better and more honest world.