The deadly power of dark money

The murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta sheds a light on the insidious nature of offshore havens and the corrupt global networks they sustain. 

Credit: 401(K) 2012/Flickr

It is not yet known who murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in a car bomb assassination on Monday, but we know many other things. We know that Caruana Galizia was a leading investigative journalist whose reporting had uncovered endemic corruption linking governments, businesses and organised crime globally.

We know she played a key role in reporting the Panama Papers data leak in 2016 that revealed how offshore entities were being used for illegal purposes including fraud and tax evasion. We also know that her most recent revelations implicated Malta’s prime minister Joseph Muscat and two of his aides with offshore companies linked to the sale of Maltese passports and payments from the government of Azerbaijan.

And we know that, having already received death threats, Caruana Galizia wrote in her final blogpost on the day she died: “There are crooks everywhere you look. The situation is desperate.”

This all feels like something out of a mafia movie, yet it is the reality of a world awash with dark money. As the Panama Papers leak revealed, there are many and varied ways that the rich, powerful and criminal use offshore havens to funnel money through labyrinthine global networks.

These practices take place on such an industrialised scale that dark money is now meshed into the very fabric of our political and economic systems. Even when governments claim to be taking action to tackle the problem, very little is done.

This is partly because of the globalised nature of finance, which makes it difficult for any one nation to track transactions outside of its jurisdiction, and partly because politicians are often implicated themselves. Indeed the Panama Papers showed that 143 politicians – including 12 national leaders – had links to the offshore tax havens revealed in the documents of law firm Mossack Fonseca.

Dark money helps to institutionalise corruption and anti-democratic practices. In her 2016 book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, investigative journalist Jane Mayer threw a light on a network of extremely wealthy conservative libertarians in the US – in particular industrialists Charles and David Koch – and their role in funding a range of organisations that work in tandem to influence academic institutions, think tanks, the courts and political institutions like Congress and even the American presidency.

This week, meanwhile, Labour MP Ben Bradshaw called on the government to investigate the possible role played by ‘dark money’ in last year’s EU referendum, including the £9m donation made to the Leave campaign by businessman, Brexit supporter and former UKIP donor Arron Banks – a sum said to be the biggest donation in British political history.

Dark money is now implicated in many of the big events and trends shaping our age – but understanding where it comes from, and how to tackle it, seems as opaque a challenge as ever. Sadly we know that Caruana Galizia expressed this same sense of hopelessness shortly before her tragic murder.

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