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A book on freedom of expression hangs on a burnt tree alongside the spot where a car bomb was detonated killing investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia four days ago, on the road leading from her home in Bidnija, Malta, October 20, 2017. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

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By Crispian Balmer

VALLETTA (Reuters) - Daphne Caruana Galizia posted two items last Monday on her popular blog, one ridiculing Malta's opposition leader for having rounded shoulders, the other denouncing a senior government official as a "crook".

A typical morning's work done, she set off in her white Peugeot 108 to run an errand, but barely made it past her front gate before a bomb tore through the car, throwing it into an adjacent field and killing her instantly.

Her death shocked Malta, the smallest nation in the European Union, which has been engulfed by a wave of graft scandals, including accusations of money laundering and influence peddling in government -- all of which have been denied.

Caruana Galizia exposed many of these cases and was loved by her readers as a fearless, anti-corruption crusader. Critics saw her as a muck-raking fantasist.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, her main target, promised everything would be done to find her killers, but friends and family have low expectations that anyone will be brought to justice, seeing murky powers behind a very professional hit.

"She had to be done away with because she couldn't be bought off," said Manuel Delia, a blogger who described the 53-year-old Caruana Galizia as his mentor. "She was a polemicist, a provocateur and a critic. She was unique in Malta."

A trail-blazing journalist, Caruana Galizia was one of Malta's first political columnists in the 1990s at a time when its newspapers were staid and male-dominated.

The confines of established media frustrated her and in 2008 she set up her blog -- Running Commentary -- a one-woman operation which drew up to 400,000 page views a day, matching the volumes recorded on the websites of the largest dailies.

She sometimes posted more than 30 items a day, mixing caustic commentary with tabloid gossip and detailed graft allegations, supplied by what she called her "network of spies".

"The blog allowed her to express herself exactly as she wanted and expose abuse wherever she saw it," said Petra Caruana Dingli, a friend of the slain writer.

TRIBAL POLITICS

Much of the criticism was levelled against Muscat and his leftist Labour party, which won power in 2013 after a nearly quarter of a century of uninterrupted rule by the conservative Nationalist Party, itself tainted by corruption scandals.

Malta, a rocky archipelago 100 km (60 miles) south of Sicily with a population of 430,000, has no major soccer clubs or religious divisions. Instead, people define themselves by their politics, and Caruana Galizia was seen in the Nationalist camp.

She denied being in anyone's camp, but said Labour was turning Malta into a mafia state -- something the party rejects.

"She was a fierce Labour critic, but definitely not a fair critic," said Glenn Bedingfield, a Labour parliamentarian.

"She made very personal attacks over the way we looked, the way we dressed. She used to ridicule anyone associated with the Labour Party camp. She was not kind. She hurt a lot of people."

She could also shake the party to its core.

Last year, in the so-called Panama Papers, she found Muscat's chief of staff and one of his ministers had Panama-registered companies. She said they created the firms to hide bribes. They denied wrongdoing.

This year, she said she had proof Muscat's wife also owned a Panama-based company that allegedly received $1 million from Azerbaijan, which has growing commercial ties with Malta.

She denied the accusations, as did Muscat, who instigated an investigation. Magistrates heard evidence from Caruana Galizia, but have yet to release their findings.

Muscat called snap elections for June, saying he wanted a fresh mandate to prevent political uncertainty from damaging the economy, the strongest performer in the European Union.

Critics such as Caruana Galizia say the economic success is fuelled by schemes such as selling Maltese passports to foreigners, or handing out licences that have turned Malta into the online gambling capital of Europe.

The government says these initiatives are legitimate, and voters returned Muscat to office with a stable majority.

LEGAL WOES

Stunned by his victory, Caruana Galizia halted work on her blog for a month to spend time with her three sons and take care of her much loved house and garden. She returned in the summer with a surprise new target -- Adrian Delia who was looking to become leader of the Nationalist Party (NP).

Some NP supporters saw it as a betrayal and vilified her in social media. "People called her a hag, a slut, a witch," said her friend Caruana Dingli. "It took its toll, but she carried on regardless."

Going where newspapers feared to tread, Caruana Galizia accused Delia of drawing money from a London-based prostitution racket. He denied this and filed five libel suits.

Caruana Galizia received 36 libel suits in the past nine months alone, including 19 from a property developer, while the economy minister persuaded the courts to freeze her bank account to ensure she could pay up if she lost a case against him.

"The libel suits were part of a wider strategy to shut her up," said Corinne Vella, one of Caruana Galizia's three sisters. "They seemed to be designed to eat up her time and money."

Caruana Galizia came from a well-to-do family and her husband was a successful lawyer. Besides her blog, she also edited a glossy magazine and wrote newspaper columns. She was confident she would win the Malta libel suits, where, in any case, maximum damages total 11,647 euros ($13,728).

Four days after her killing, police say they have made no arrests and predict it will take weeks to accumulate all the evidence.

"I think people silence journalists not because of what they have written, but because of what they are planning to write," Muscat told Reuters in his office in Valletta.

Caruana Galizia's friends and family say they were not aware she had uncovered any explosive new stories.

"I asked her if she had any more. She told me: 'Isn't what I have got enough?'" said blogger Manuel Delia.

(Additional reporting by Chris Scicluna; editing by Giles Elgood)

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