The head of the Security Service briefed the Prime Minister about the shady past of a former top official. “An internal inquiry was held as there had been a lot of media speculation,” he told his political master, who, on learning the reports turned out to be factual, commented that the press had therefore been correct. “Yes, but they did not know that. They were being totally ignorant and irresponsible. They just happened to be accurate, that’s all,” the intelligence chief reacted.

The Prime Minister later discussed the matter with the Cabinet Secretary and was advised to avoid inquiries as they give rise to “more irresponsible, ill-informed press speculation... especially if it’s accurate”. Government inquiries, he was told, only served to kill press stories and enable the Prime Minister to tell Parliament a full inquiry was held but no evidence was found to substantiate the charges made.

This is how most politicians and senior civil servants generally look at inquiries and the media. The Labour government has stepped up this attitude a few notches in the wake of the Panama Papers leaks and subsequent allegations. It is now amply evident it is only willing to work with and support the ‘friendly’ media.

The Press Act, which preceded the much-vaunted Media and Defamation Act, had a provision declaring it unlawful for the government “to issue general instructions that prohibit the giving of information to any newspaper or licensed broadcasting service holding a particular view or to any specified newspaper or licensed broadcasting service”.

The new law does not seem to contain any such specific article, nor any provisions that could be said to be similar in substance. But would somebody dare argue that once the provision is no longer there such behaviour by the government has suddenly become acceptable?

Yet, politicians like Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi do not seem to care much about being fair with the media. An exercise by The Sunday Times of Malta found that his ministry only issued four calls to the press via the Department of Information even if Dr Mizzi attended 38 public events this year. It is usually only the public broadcaster and the Labour Party’s own media that get to know about his official functions and attend.

The Office of the Prime Minister says it does not interfere in ministers’ decisions about which media houses to invite to events. Moreover, it notes, there were certain events that merited full media coverage and others that were not deemed to be important announcements.

The government, however, cannot be seen to be discriminating among the media. And why should a minister waste his own time and that of the national broadcaster on “unimportant” events?

The Institute of Maltese Journalists deems Dr Mizzi’s practice “a deliberately discriminatory tactic” to avoid being asked questions on serious allegations of ministerial misconduct.

“A free and unhindered press is essential to the proper functioning of any democratic society. The press has an obligation to inform the public about matters of national and public interest,” the institute noted. But the truth is very often uncomfortable as the attitude grotesquely portrayed in the Yes, Prime Minister TV series episode described above clearly shows.

No, Prime Minister, Ministers, you cannot play hide-and-seek with the independent media.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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