[WATCH] This is character assassination, not journalism | Chris Cardona

Economy Minister and PL deputy leader Chris Cardona argues that a ‘smokescreen of lies’, conjured by a ‘coalition of confusion’, has now reached a national breaking point

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
22 May 2017, 7:53am
Chris Cardona
Chris Cardona
Dr Cardona, you are currently suing Daphne Caruana Galizia for libel over a story concerning an alleged visit to a brothel. The case centres on the issue of freedom of speech. At the same time, you are no stranger to using hard-hitting language yourself. For instance, when you said (words to the effect of) that ‘we will respond to dagger-thrusts by wielding an axe’ – isn’t this a contradiction?

I think a distinction has to be made: the ‘axe’ reference was a political metaphor. It was a time when the PL was on the receiving end of many unfair attacks: not by journalists, but by people who play the part of journalists, but who have a political, not editorial agenda. Metaphorically, I could have said: ‘if you punch us, we will punch you back twice’. But I chose to use the axe metaphor instead. On the other hand: when it comes to freedom of speech, I think our government – in this term and in others – has been a prime mover in this area. But freedom of speech does not mean one is free to say whatever one pleases. There are parameters. When it comes to the parameters of lies, invention and fiction, I think one doesn’t have the right to calumny others. This morning, Daphne Caruana Galizia lost a libel case at appeals stage against (ironically) one of our new candidates [Julia Farrugia]. She [Daphne] had alleged that she [Farrugia] had performed lewd acts, had stripped in public, that she was a ‘bitch’, etc... [...] Another example was when she put up a picture taken from Facebook, at a political event, and alleged that I was in the company of prostitutes... when the women in the picture where ordinary people, attending a public political event with their families and children  [...] We can’t descend into these gutter levels of supposed ‘journalism’. That is not journalism; journalism is what you and your colleagues do: you follow a story. It annoys us sometimes, true; but we, politicians, need you, the fourth pillar, to make us more careful in our actions.

At the same time, however, you also requested a garnishee order to freeze Daphne Caruana Galizia’s accounts...

It was perfectly legal...

... I’m not contesting the legality; but from a political perspective, doesn’t that send out the message that you are trying to muzzle your critics by any means possible?

I don’t see it that way. First of all, it’s not in my nature to resort to libel. The only other libel case I filed was against [former PM] Eddie Fenech Adami – which I won – over a lie he said about me on the eve of the last election. I didn’t request any garnishee orders. The only other libel cases were instituted against me; such as one by [former minister] Tonio Fenech, which I won as well. But in the context of this case, I think that an extreme action such as the one taken by Daphne Caruana Galizia deserved an extreme response.  It was an extreme reaction, but within the parameters of the law. There was a request submitted to the court, presided by Magistrate Francesco Depasquale, to have those garnishee orders revoked; but the magistrate did not revoke them. In his reply to those submissions, he left the garnishee orders in place...

Fair enough, but that is a legalistic reply. No one is questioning your legal right to request a garnishee order; but there is a political price tag. As a politician, your actions are interpreted as part of an attitude. In this case, it seems the attitude is intolerance to criticism.

Undoubtedly, but only where [the criticism] steps beyond the journalistic parameters: something she [Daphne] does every day.  At least, there was one person who tried to stop her. There were many people – and I’m saying this for the first time today – not from our camp, but from the opposing camp, who were disgusted by the way in which Daphne Caruana Galizia – who, when she sees this interview, will probably invent a new lie about me... that I’ve been seen in the company of shady characters, or that I was supposed to be here but in reality was somewhere else... [laughs] Anyway, there were a lot of people in the Nationalist camp who told me: ‘Chris, you had the courage to take this action against her. She is damaging us; she is costing us support. She is detracting from the serenity within the structures of the Nationalist Party.’ [...] Obviously a lot of people don’t want there to be this type of attack based on lies and invention; this sort of political character assassination. Because at the end of the day, this is what this is: it is character assassination, for the simple reason that she can’t criticise me over my work. This is the irony:  I would accept criticism over my performance as a minister. How well I performed in the economy; how much foreign investment I attracted; how many new jobs we created; how many foreign factories we brought over in the manufacturing sector; how many new economic niches we are now seeing. I would have no problem if she criticised me on these things. My colleagues on the other side of the House criticise me on this all the time. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes they make recommendations; sometimes we take them on board, sometimes we don’t. But they don’t go into these gutter levels that this person descends to...

But there is a distinction between politicians and the man in the street vis-a-vis private lives. The question of whether a politician visits a brothel while on government business, is not the same in the case of an ordinary citizen...

My private life is public domain. I agree with this; I have no problem that my private life is investigated. But I expect that what emerges is the truth. For instance, she wrote a year ago that I went to a festa to take drugs. She uploaded photos of me, which she later removed, in which my face was superimposed onto that of an actor in a movie scene about a drug deal. This is something disgusting. I don’t want to be associated with this sort of thing, because I have no connection whatsoever with drugs. I have never taken drugs, I never touched drugs, I never sold drugs... so I think this person should not just be permitted to allege these things.

This is NOT journalism. This is character assassination. I will say it again: I agree that my private life should be in the public domain. The actions of a politician should be subject to public scrutiny. I agree with this. But it doesn’t mean we can attribute lies to politicians, just like that. That we can all shoot from the hip, in the hope of hitting something. This is disgusting behaviour, and I think that nationally, matters have now reached breaking point. There is consensus, a ‘coalition’... not the ‘coalition of confusion’ of Simon Busuttil and Marlene Farrugia, but a coalition of thought that we should not allow this sort of hate speech about people who are, at the end of the day, serving their country.

The defence has meanwhile requested your mobile phone records, to establish your whereabouts that night. If you insist that you are innocent, why not produce evidence which should (by your argument) exculpate you?

I have no problem with it, but we have to be careful not to create dangerous precedents. The rule of law and the principles of natural justice demand that if you make an accusation against someone, you must support it with at least a shred of evidence. We have seen [a perversion of this principle] in my case, and more recently in the Egrant case. Simon Busuttil rode on a story by Daphne Caruana Galizia, which is not substantiated at all. It is a lie from beginning to end.  When we come to the moment of proof, those who are making the allegation must shoulder their responsibility for their words. I can’t imagine how Simon Busuttil can – like his ‘partner’ [‘sehbitu’] Daphne Caruana Galizia – avoid taking responsibility for the enormous lie he told about Joseph Muscat and his wife Michelle. I can’t understand how they are now changing the story. Now, they [the Muscats] have to prove they don’t own Egrant. What on earth? The burden of proof doesn’t work that way. One: the sacrosanct principle in the courts of justice is that the burden proof lies with the person making the allegations. Two, this is not ‘a fishing expedition’. I know what’s going to happen...

Which case are you talking about now?

Mine. But it also goes for the prime minister’s. What will happen is this: they ask for my mobile records; I say, fine, no problem, here they are; they show that there is nothing to support the allegation. What will she say then?  She will say: ‘Ah, that’s most likely because he switched off his mobile, or left it somewhere. So now we’ll ask NASA to supply data using their satellites...’ This is not a fishing expedition. Whoever alleges needs to prove; and before you make an allegation like that, you need evidence. You need witnesses. You need to go to court with something in your hand. We’re not a third world country. There is the rule of law; there are principles that we have been safeguarding and working on for a long time.

Three: the request made by Daphne Caruana Galizia was declared illegal by the European Court of Justice. [...] My lawyers found an ECJ court sentence saying that the law this request was based on is itself illegal. It is void: you cannot use that law in court. So we departed from the premise that the burden of proof lies with the accuser; we moved on to the point where I would have no problem [furnishing mobile phone records], but it would set a dangerous precedent... on the basis of an illegal law. That is not what seriousness demands. Seriousness demands a lot more than that.

Moving onto the broader issues of corruption overshadowing this election: so far we have talked about Egrant, but the other companies have been known since April 2016. They belong to Konrad Mizzi, Keith Schembri and Brian Tonna. No one even questions that. So isn’t the Labour Party in denial over corruption?

Not at all. I think the issue of corruption is a smokescreen that Simon Busuttil, with his extremist clique in the coalition of confusion, is clinging onto by his fingertips, because he has no real alternative to this government. There has not been a single case of corruption under this government...

But...

... not only that, but we introduced the Whistleblowers’ Act; the party financing law... we removed the time-barring of cases involving politicians. Until I die, I will remain answerable for my actions. There was the case of Panama. It was clear: we were not in denial over it. 

Weren’t you?

Absolutely not. Of course not...

But the people involved were all retained...

Yes, of course. But remedial action was taken...

What action?

There was remedial action. Konrad Mizzi was deputy party leader and minister for energy...

... and now he’s been given another portfolio, but still speaks on behalf of government on energy issues...

...under the surveillance of the prime minister’s office, though. That was a very strong message. 

Don’t you think he should have resigned?

I agree with the approach taken by the prime minister in this case. I think Konrad Mizzi still has a lot to contribute to this government as a minister; I have no doubt that his achievements are not mentioned enough, because they are overshadowed by Panama.

Then there’s the Egrant issue. This is serious: we have an Opposition leader who makes calumnious allegations about the prime minister and his family... but much more seriously than that, there is the damage he has done to the country. The instability he has caused to the political scene, to the financial services sector, to the national institutions. [Busuttil] doesn’t have faith in anybody. He has no faith in the Police Commissioner... OK, I can understand that, as the Commissioner was appointed by the Labour government.

But he has no faith in the Attorney General, either... who was appointed under the last [Gonzi] administration... or in Prof. Joe Bannister, the chairman of the MFSA, who has been there for donkey’s years. He has no faith in anyone. [...] Simon Busuttil has no choice but to adopt that attitude. But we will be holding him responsible for his actions. And the prime minister was very clear. If the Egrant inquiry, conducted by an independent magistrate, establishes that there was the tiniest of doubts that there could be a personal interest on the part of Joseph Muscat, or his wife, in this company... the prime minister said he would resign immediately. But the same has to apply to Simon Busuttil. If there is no proof, Simon Busuttil will have to resign at once. 

Is Simon Busuttil the only one damaging the country, though? Wouldn’t you agree that the actions of Konrad Mizzi, Keith Shembri, etc., have also had an impact... seeing as they were broadcast to the world via the Panama Papers? Is all that just a smokescreen, too?

Today, after the Panama leaks, and the revelation that a lot of those companies were registered under Maltese names... yes, I think that some damage was done. But I think that it is a closed chapter. The prime minister took action. And the revelation did not just harm our country. It was a story that exposed a lot of people in a lot of countries as having offshore companies...

But only one – Konrad Mizzi – was a serving European minister...

Yes, and he explained why he set up those structures. He even explained that it was political naivety; that he had made a mistake, and that he was sorry for what he had done. But it was definitely not intentioned for the purposes of corruption or money laundering. That is excluded a priori. So much so, that when he was interviewed by the PANA committee, I think they were very clear in their reactions.