When we named NET News’s Mario Frendo journalist of the year last December, we were impressed by his machine-gun-questioning of politicians, rather than his ability to be an investigative reporter. But when the Acapulco story broke, he was the only Maltese journalist to visit the German brothel to find out whether Economy Minister Chris Cardona had visited, a claim he vehemently denies. We caught up with the 23-year-old journalist to find out what it was like to go undercover in a brothel.
“I didn’t fully understand the risk I had put myself into until I was on the plane heading back to Malta. Otherwise, I would have probably decided not to enter the brothel,” Frendo tells Lovin Malta, fresh from the high of a huge amount of feedback from his reports.
“Going there, my mindset was clear: get inside footage, if possible get proof that Cardona was there, and get the hell out. Only afterwards it occurred to me that I was actually inside a German brothel, the embodiment of Germany’s human trafficking problem. I’d prefer not to think about what would have happened if we were caught.”
Frendo and his cameraman arrived in Frankfurt late on Wednesday evening, only two days after blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia broke the story that Cardona and his aide visited the club.
“From the airport we drove 2.5 hours to Velbert. We dropped our luggage at the hotel and immediately headed towards FKK Acapulco. It was already late, so time was of the essence.”
“That night, at around 11pm, we entered into the brothel pretending to be clients. In total we spent three hours there, lingering from one room to the next, trying to get as much footage as possible. Obviously you have to pretend you’re there to relax, so most of the time it was just me and my cameraperson talking to each other pretending we’re just having fun, plotting our next move and trying not to get caught.”
“I had never visited brothels before, and the fact that we were filming secretly made the visit all the more uncomfortable,” he says.
“We were so afraid we’d get in trouble that we only plucked up the courage to speak to three girls in total, all of whom confirmed that they had seen the Minister at the brothel,” he says, demonstrating how he was able to keep his mobile phone in his bath robe from which he managed to show the women photos of the minister and his aide.
“Two of them we caught on tape. The other, who unfortunately, to my great disappointment, was not, even added: ‘yes but not today’.”
“This girl, accompanied by a friend of hers, seemed uncomfortable with the conversation as she kept asking whether we wanted to have sex. Obviously that was not our intention there, so she left after five minutes into the conversation.”
The other two girls spent more time chatting to Frendo and his cameraman.
“If you listen closely to the recording you’ll realise that the girls did not say “I think yes” (“naħseb li iva“) but rather “I think…..Yes” (as in “ħa naħseb ftit…. iva”).
“We were so afraid we’d get in trouble that we only plucked up the courage to speak to three girls in total, all of whom confirmed that they had seen the Minister at the brothel”
Frendo says the women had no reason to lie. He also denies having to pay them anything.
“We barely had enough money to buy a total of three beers each. I was given €100 spending money, which we spent on entrance fees (€30 each) and beers (€30 in total – €5 per beer),” he says, adding that drinking the beer was crucial to appear as normal clients since they were already dodgy because they weren’t having sex.
“Interestingly the club doesn’t seem to issue receipts, as we were given none,” he says, adding that he also spent €45 of his own money to refuel their rented car and he’s still waiting for reimbursement.
On Thursday, the following day, Frendo and his cameraman returned to Acapulco in the afternoon. This time to get outside shots of the brothel and possibly a statement from the management of the club.
“Unfortunately we didn’t manage to get a statement,” he says.
“We barely had enough money to buy a total of three beers each. I was given €100 spending money, which we spent on entrance fees (€30 each) and beers (€30 in total – €5 per beer).”
Frendo has not yet been sued for libel but Cardona has threatened to extend his suit against Caruana Galizia to include NET News journalists.
So how does Frendo feel about the whole case today?
“Funnily enough, there is not one person on Facebook who is saying: ‘There is no way Chris Cardona went to a brothel.’ Some people are in fact defending the Minister by saying ‘Why shouldn’t he go to a brothel?’ or even: ‘Good for him, sewwa għamel mar hemm!’. So I think everyone is morally convinced that Chris Cardona was in the brothel; not just me,” he says.
“There were persons who tried to ridicule or discredit me, however I’m not really bothered – except when certain comments are passed not by general members of the public – but by high OPM officials, whose attempts at discrediting journalists are nothing short of threats to a healthy democracy, where keeping the Government accountable is fundamental.”
“But on the whole I received positive feedback – from people who value the work we did and the risks we took all for the sake of Government accountability.”