A garnishee order against journalism

The party I represent, Partit Demokratiku, has come out strongly against the precautionary warrants issued in the names of Chris Cardona and Joseph Gerada against Daphne Caruana Galizia. Not because we are fans of Caruana Galizia. To be honest, we are not. We find her style too abrasive and her judgement often tainted by political bias and a personal hatred for one particular political party.

At the same time, it must be recalled that it is thanks to her that we were made aware of the Panama Papers scandal and several other abuses of power by this current government, stories that otherwise might have gone by unnoticed. We will not even comment on the veracity and merits of her revelations regarding Cardona’s visit to Germany. The courts will do that when the libel case is heard.

What concerns our party is that the garnishee order issued by the courts has very serious implications for journalism in Malta, the freedom of the press and our democracy itself.

I will explain why.

Journalists need the freedom to do their job unhindered without the prospect of having their financial assets frozen. Most journalists are not exactly rich; it is a pretty thankless job done by some very dedicated individuals. In order to obtain information, they often rely on people who will give it to them off the record. The journalist knows that the information is correct but cannot, for various reasons, reveal exactly where it came from. They will, however, defend their story in a court of law if sued for libel.

By issuing a garnishee order, freezing financial assets equivalent to the maximum possible fine that can be imposed, the courts have in effect brought about the situation where the journalist is guilty until found innocent. Caruana Galizia may be able to afford to ride out such a financial blow; she certainly can do so now with the funds collected by the public on her behalf. For most other journalists, however, it would mean financial ruin. They would think very hard before publishing a story, and we the public would be the losers.

Justice is best served not by intimidating the press but by ensuring that it is delivered promptly and fairly.
The free press is a pillar of our democracy. With the main Opposition party in disarray, it may be the most important pillar of all. If journalists believe what has been done to Caruana Galizia could also be done to them, we may find that revelations of corruption, graft, nepotism and political coercion will lay gathering dust. Politicians are very sensitive to public opinion. That opinion cannot be made if the public are not properly informed by the free press. Malta will be the poorer for it.

I am a doctor. If doctors treated patients only with the prospect of litigation on their mind, those patients would be hard done by indeed. Two years ago a woman came to my place of work in the process of suffering a major stroke. She couldn’t speak and was completely paralysed on one side of her body. I initiated a treatment which, at the time, was not yet endorsed by the medical advisory committee of the hospital. There was a risk. I was actually mildly chastised for taking that risk. Fortunately, the treatment worked, and the woman concerned left a few days later not as a bed-ridden cripple but as an articulate lady on her own two feet.

Now imagine if my judgement had been influenced not by my concern for the woman’s well-being but by the thought of ending up in court. I would have done what was safe, not what was right. Who would have ended up suffering?

Think of the free press as the caregivers of our democracy. Do you want them to play safe, or do you want them to safeguard that democracy?

What was done against Caruana Galizia has opened a can of worms. The garnishee order was not against her, it was against journalism itself. Next time it could be a pro-PL, pro-PN or independent journalist that gets targeted, with the person filing for a precautionary warrant knowing full well it could take years for the funds to be released.

We have libel laws to protect victims of abuse and slander, be it from the media or individuals. Those laws allow the victims to seek redress and compensation in a court of law as well as a public admission from the perpetrator who is bound by the courts to put the record straight.

That this system does not work quite as it should is not the fault of the law but the fault of the courts themselves. Cases often take years. In the meantime victims of libel could see their careers ruined, reputations destroyed and personal lives put on the rack until justice is done. Only one magistrate is appointed to hear such cases.

Partit Demokratiku proposes that more magistrates should be assigned to deal with them, and the cases given priority. They should be heard as a matter of urgency and the truth upheld as soon as possible.

Justice is best served not by intimidating the press but by ensuring that it is delivered promptly and fairly. It is in the interest of the public, the press and our very democracy that this be the case.

Anthony Buttigieg is the deputy leader of Partit Demokratiku.