“The moment we no longer have free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that the people are not informed.” Hannah Arendt.

The Nationalist Party, through its newspaper Il-Mument, has once again attacked the free press. Recently it carried an article against the Times of Malta after The Sunday Times brought to light the fact that two Nationalist MPs had secretly met Yorgen Fenech of Tumas Group to ask for a sponsorship.

What makes the matter even more serious is that PN had previously denied that such a meeting took place. 

All the current Opposition MPs were elected on the ticket of Forza Nazzjonali, whose battle cry was, and essentially remains, good governance. It is very painful to watch our previous coalition partners – the PN, the party that put Malta at par with much bigger and wealthier European economies – so intent on utterly destroying itself.

What has happened to those shared principles? Why is the Nationalist Party in bed with the very people whose influence we swore to remove?

Yet, the threat to the independent media does not stop there. The Labour government has reportedly been gradually pressuring businesses to cut their advertising with the Times of Malta, in an attempt to starve it of funds.

The free press is absolutely critical for the public to have truthful news and access to objective information

Beyond the direct threats to the income of media houses, journalism in Malta has also been threatened by SLAPPs, through which journalists or media houses can be hit with crippling lawsuits even by entities in a foreign country, in an attempt to silence them.

Much has been said about SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation) in the past years, and the Democratic Party has spoken of the need to protect the independent media from such actions. As it stands, while a Maltese journalist or media house may be threatened by an entity from outside the European Union, they are mostly protected by national legislation. Nonetheless, Europe-wide protection from SLAPP would be a step forward.

Journalists are also hindered in their work by a hostile environment and abuse of the law, for example through questionable interpretations of the Freedom of Information Act, which is being used as an excuse not to divulge information.

A recent case is that of Malta Enterprise, where a whistleblower recently claimed that the Chief Operating Officer has been editing investment committee minutes and incentive packages. Malta Enterprise has denied the claim but appears to be abusing the confidentiality aspect of the Act to cover up what public assets it has dished out to independent private entities, when the Act should only protect trade secrets and other genuinely sensitive information.

The recognition of the threat to independent thought and the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia has led to Malta falling sharply in the Press Freedom Index to 65th place. The free press is one of the fundamental pillars of a true democracy. By its very nature, the free press will at times agree with and disagree with the agenda of one political party or another. But an independent media platform is a critical lense, an analytical tool, that the public can use to sift fact from fiction.

This lies in stark contrast to party-funded media, which have an inherent bias. The free press is absolutely critical for the public to have truthful news and access to objective information.

It is also important that there are multiple independent news sources, so one may compare and contrast editorial angles.

The Democratic Party is duty-bound to stand up for the Times of Malta against any and all politically motivated attacks.

It is no use picking and choosing democratic principles. It is either all or it is nothing at all. We invite our former coalition partners to decide which side of the fence they are on, once and for all; if not as a party, then as individual members within that party.

We ask you to stand up and be counted.

Godfrey Farrugia is the leader of the Democratic Party and an MEP candidate.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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