Press laws need overhaul, but journalists cannot abandon duty of verification

Chris Cardona’s selected targeting ignores damages that can stultify journalists

Economy minister and Labour Party deputy leader Chris Cardona
Economy minister and Labour Party deputy leader Chris Cardona

The minister alleged by Malta Independent columnist Daphne Caruana Galizia on her blog of having visited a brothel while on government duty in Germany, has defended his €46,000 garnishee order against his accuser as “reasonable”, claiming Caruana Galizia was not a journalist.

“We are talking about a person that publishes malicious stories about people, their families, their illnesses,” Cardona said on TVM’s Xtra.

He rejected claims that he was stifling freedom of expression after journalists bodies including Malta’s IGM and the European Federation of Journalists protested at the heavy-handed precautionary warrant that accompanied four libels against the journalist.

Cardona also aid that he would never take the same action against other journalists, like NET journalist Mario Frendo who visited the brothel Cardona allegedly attended to prove that the minister had in fact been there.

Cardona is a deputy leader of the Labour Party.

On his part, Frendo – who set out to verify the allegations made against Cardona by filming secretly inside the brothel – feared the implications that such a ‘precedent’ could have on journalism. “When there is the possibility of politicians asking the court to issue garnishees like this it has a chilling effect and can cause journalists to think twice before they investigate certain things,” he said.

He said that he was also concerned by the fact that the minister was being selected on whose assets to freeze. “The reason he gave for the garnishee order was that according to him, Daphne Caruana Galizia is not a journalist, and this worries me because in a democratic society, it shouldn’t be the minister who decides who is or isn’t a journalist,” argued Frendo.

MaltaToday executive editor Matthew Vella said that journalists’ priority should be the protection of freedom of expression which would have to involve a revision of libel laws and the Press Act, and other laws that can be used to intimidate journalists. “They are being used to purposely kill stories and stifle freedom of expression. It has happened to MaltaToday, The Times and to Daphne Caruana Galizia,” said Vella.

Ultimately however, said Vella, one must also keep in mind that there are journalistic principles that must be respected.

“It not about whether someone is a journalist or a blogger. We are all broadcasters, but what determines whether or not a message is contributing positively to Maltese democracy is the act of verification. That is what defines journalism,” he said.

“The guiding principle should be the truth. Not some philosophical definition of the truth, but a functional rule for the way things are done,” he said, while warning against journalism that creates “systematic campaigns” against ordinary people, simply because of their association with politicians or particular individuals.