The Malta Independent 23 October 2018, Tuesday

Update: Caruana Galizia's accounts frozen as Cardona sues; 'terrible implications for press freedom'

Wednesday, 8 February 2017, 15:09 Last update: about 3 years ago

Journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia has had her bank accounts frozen after a court upheld a request by Economy Minister Chris Cardona and his consultant Joe Gerada to issue garnishee orders alongside four libel suits they have filed against her.

Cardona and Gerada have sued Mrs Caruana Galizia over allegations in the so-called brothelgate saga. The minister denies that he visited a German brothel while on government business. The blogger says her source at the brothel is solid, and has published a detailed account of the minister’s alleged antics.

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Dr Cardona and Joe Gerada requested the court to issue garnishee orders of €11,500 – the maximum allowable amount – with respect to the four libel suits. Magistrate Gabriella Valle upheld the requests. Dr Cardona is expected to file additional libel suits against Caruana Galizia and the Nationalist Party.

Mrs Caruana Galizia confirmed that her bank accounts have been frozen to the tune of €46,000.  

In a statement she said she was effectively being punished even before the case was heard, and said the implications for democracy and for the freedom of the press are terrible

“Today, both men took the exceptional measure of filing precautionary warrants on my assets for the maximum libel damages that would be payable to them should they win all four cases: €11,865 x 4 = €47,460. My bank accounts have consequently been frozen to this amount, and will remain frozen to that amount until the case is concluded many years from now."

Referring to reports that Dr Cardona intends to file additional libel suits, Mrs Caruana Galizia said: "It can be concluded that with each one he files he will also obtain a precautionary warrant for €11,865. This means that if he files another 10 cases for 10 articles or blog-posts, he can freeze my personal assets in the present and future, for the duration of the case, for €118,650 and carry on in that fashion.”

She said Cardona and Gerada now “have an additional interest in prolonging the case as much as possible: not only are they lying (there is an eyewitness who saw them at the FKK Acapulco) but the longer they drag the case on without a verdict, the longer my bank accounts are frozen to any amount they decide they deserve as a precautionary measure.

While the use of precautionary warrants is not unusual in commercial cases, their use in libel suits is unheard of, she said. "The use of a precautionary warrant in a libel suit against a journalist means that the journalist is effectively made to pay a heavy penalty before the case even begins to be heard and years before the verdict is reached. When the precautionary warrant is filed by a politician against a journalist who holds him to scrutiny, the implications for democracy and for the freedom of the press are terrible. "

Mr Caruana Galizia said politicians can sue journalists over the most thrivial of reasons and the system as it stands is ripe for abuse by politicians who try to silence the journalists who expose them, so that their wrong-doing is not exposed.

"It should be noted here that even if a journalist lays out all the facts and witnesses in an article, there is still nothing to prevent the politician from suing, taking out a precautionary warrant for €11,865, and then dragging the case on for years, purely for malicious reasons.

It should be clear to anyone that the Minister for the Economy and his EU presidency policy officer have not filed precautionary warrants on my assets because they are confident that they will win their cases (rather the opposite), obtain the maximum damages, and that I will not have the resources to pay them, but because they wish to harass me for what I have reported about them, obtain revenge, punish me and – beyond that – also silence others who have picked up the story. The idea is to create what the European Court of Human Rights, in its judgements on freedom of the press matters, calls a “chilling effect”.

The behaviour of Christian Cardona and Joe Gerada demonstrates clearly that they are anything but innocent. Instead of calling a press conference the day after I broke the story, explaining where they were and giving an alibi, they have hidden from the press, made excuses and said that they prefer to clear their name in court rather than do it now in the press. They have frozen my funds not because they are confident that they will win their cases and obtain maximum damages, but because they know that they won’t. Instead they are going to make me pay the price of financial inconvenience for several years until the court reaches its verdict, which means that they will now also prolong the case as much as possible.

The implications of this for my fellow journalists and colleagues in the press are tremendously bad. What the deputy leader of the Labour Party/Economy Minister and his policy officer have done in these cases can be done to any other journalist or editor who is currently facing or will face a libel suit. The negative effect it will have on the freedom of the press is immense, because now it is not only libel suits which journalists have got to be wary of, but also precautionary warrants which freeze their bank accounts until the case is concluded. We should not be surprised that journalism is in severe decline in Malta, that fewer people wish to be journalists, that journalists are afraid of doing their job properly, and that corrupt and abusive politicians are winning the game,” Mrs Caruana Galizia said.

PN statement

In their reaction, the Nationalist Party said that the freezing Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assets by Minister Cardona is an extreme attack on the freedom of the press, and is a clear threat to democracy in Malta.

Freezing nearly €50,000 prior to the case introduced by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s “friends” being heard is an extreme unprecedented measure, which shows that the PL Deputy Leader already gave up on winning the argument, the PN said.

"If the PL Deputy Leader and his consultants had a hope of winning the cases they brought forward, the wouldn’t have initiated such an extreme assault, indeed they would have waited for the court judgement and then insist on payment on that day."

"As they know there were a number of witnesses, which shows that they were in a German brothel with prostitutes when they were representing Malta and the EU Presidency on a German government invitation, the Deputy Leader and his consultant looked at ways to attack freedom of expression as severely as possible".

“Politics through an axe”, the statement read, making clear reference to Minister Cardona’s comment made many months ago.

The PN said that the journalist in question is known for revealing many scandals by “the most corrupt government in Maltese political history.”

“Joseph Muscat has had his name written in Maltese history, and the Prime Minister who is ready to, by any means, shut the mouths of people who dare criticise him. This is nothing but a threat to democracy.”

IGM statement

The Institute of Maltese Journalists (IGM) took note of the legal steps taken by Economy Minister Chris Cardona against Daphne Caruana Galizia, “who in another court case was considered to be a journalist. The IGM also notes that Minister Cardona said he will not take the same steps against other journalists.” (He apparently said something to this effect on a One TV programme this evening)

“While the minister has every right to open a libel case against anyone he believes has defamed him, he must also note the implications of the request for a garnishee order on the work of the journalist, especially when the request for the order comes from a politician.”

The IGM appealed to the minister to reconsider the request for a garnishee order and send a message that journalists are truly free in their profession. "If there is no reconsideration, the IGM appeals for the libel cases in question to be heard immediately. The freezing of journalists assets is an exaggeration and goes against freedom of the press in a free democracy.”

The IGM also said that this worsened working conditions for journalists.

Daphne Caruana Galizia’s lies – Minister Cardona

Economy Minister Chris Cardona believes in freedom of expression and assures journalists that they are free to carry out their duties, he said in a statement issued this evening. More than that, he said that journalists should be encouraged to continue scrutinising as part of their work.

“Lies concocted to spread hatred and divide are not journalism,” he said in the statement. He added that nobody is permitted to use the serious profession of journalism to say what they like, spread lies and hatred against anybody, in public life as well as beyond. 

 “Daphne Caruana Galizia is a blogger who publicates baseless lies, concoctions intended to break people down with invented stories on sickness, death, children and dead people. All of these inconsiderate lies have an effect on people who are not just in public life, but on their families.People with different political beliefs have had to suffer through the lies and insults”

Dr Cardona said that it is on the basis of the above that he has chosen to go a step beyond libel proceedings, and requested a garnishee order be issued against Mrs Caruana Galizia.

“Whoever defends this blogger is doing a disservice to serious journalism. Anybody regarding the defamatory, baseless stories penned by this blogger is doing a disservice to all journalism, as well as freedom of expression.”

 

He declared that, as was explained earlier and highlighted by the Malta Institute of Journalists, even though Dr Cardona will be filing for libel against Nationalist Party media, there will be no garnishee orders issued.  

 

 

 

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