P­erhaps none other country, than Malta, is more fitting to reflect on, when it comes to media freedom. It slipped an eye-watering 34 places in three years in World Press Freedom Index.

In 2013, Malta stood at 45 in the Index by Reporters Without Borders. Now it stands at 81 and is categorised ‘problematic’.  Disheartening to say the least.

Needless to say, the country’s ranking nose-dived following the senseless murder of Malta’s foremost investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in October 2017. It continued to drop as the former chief of staff of the prime minister, Keith Schembri, connived with top police officers and even with one of the alleged masterminds of the murder to stall justice. It wasn’t too long after that a number of European institutions started to voice concern on the rule of law in Malta.

So, Malta is indeed a vivid example of how things can go horribly wrong, to the extent that a journalist was slayed, potentially with top government officials’ involvement. Apart from suffering government-sanctioned intimidation, Daphne Caruana Galizia fell victim of a wealthy and powerful business figure who had filed against her 19 defamation lawsuits in one fell swoop, not to mention other lawsuits by a particular government minister.

If journalists cannot do their job freely, our democracies will cease to exist

There is much to ponder upon here. Arguably, the victim was not just Cauruana Galizia but the whole Maltese media landscape and it was intended to be so. Since then, almost all media outlets in Malta were served with these malicious lawsuits, better known as SLAPP. The chilling effect they have strikes right at the heart of Maltese democracy or indeed any democracy. No self-respecting EU citizen can allow this to happen, not least us as your representatives. 

This is why we strongly pursued efforts for the setting up of the Daphne Caruana Galizia Prize for Journalism award, which the European Parliament will start awarding on a yearly basis. This is why we continue to insist with the European Commission to present legal proposals to prevent the so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) in order to protect independent media from vexatious lawsuits intended to silence or intimidate them.

And this is why our own MEP, Magdalena Adamowicz, led negotiations on the report entitled Strengthening Media Freedom, which the European Parliament approved with an overwhelming majority just a few days ago.

Free and independent media not only keep citizens informed but also hold leaders and governments to account. This is fundamental for any fully-fledged democracy. If journalists cannot do their job freely, our democracies will cease to exist.

This backsliding on media freedom is not endemic to Malta. Media freedom has been continuously deteriorating across the world in recent years. The cherry on the cake was the COVID-19 outbreak, which by all accounts, has exacerbated this deterioration, as revenues for media outlets continued to drop.

Notwithstanding this financial pressure, the pandemic has also brought in sharp relief the reliance we as readers have on reliable information in the public health domain. 

For far too long we have taken journalism and media freedom for granted. It is time to take a long, hard look on ourselves and act before it is too late. 

Manfred Weber, MEP, is leader of the EPP Group in the European Parliament.  David Casa, MEP & EP Quaestor, is the co-chair of the European Parliament Media Working Group.

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