Malta has dropped six places in the World Press Freedom Index, ranking 84th out of 180 countries assessed by Reporters Without Borders.
That represents the country's lowest ranking since the index's methodology was changed in 2020, when Malta ranked 81st. Comparisons with years prior to that cannot be made due to methodological changes, Reporters Without Borders noted.
In the 2022 World Press Freedom Index, which compares the level of freedom enjoyed by journalists and media, Norway maintained the top spot and was followed by Ireland, Denmark, Sweden and Finland.
Turkmenistan, Iran, Vietnam, China and North Korea ranked in the bottom five spots with the latter ranking last.
Malta ranked after Congo-Brazzaville, Malawi and Chile and placed just before Guinea, Mauritania and Zambia. The report noted that Europe, especially the European Union, is the region of the world where it is easiest for journalists to work, but the situation is mixed even there.
“Germany (ranked 21st), where a record number of cases of violence against journalists and arrests have been recorded, has fallen five places. Poland (57th), where 2022 was relatively calm from a press freedom viewpoint, has risen nine places, while France (24th) has risen two. Greece (107th), where journalists were spied on by the intelligence services and by powerful spyware, continued to have the EU’s lowest ranking,” the report noted.
In the EU there are twice as many countries that have risen in the 2023 Index as there are that have fallen. This happened as the EU is discussing unprecedented legislation that would establish common press freedom standards, the report noted.
Why the drop for Malta?
The country fact file for Malta noted that journalists have to cope with a highly polarised environment under the strong influence of political parties. In 2021, a public inquiry into the 2017 assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was concluded, listing a comprehensive set of reforms the government has been reluctant to implement.
It noted that the ruling political party “wields a strong influence over the public broadcaster and uses public advertising to exert pressure on private media. Many politicians select specific journalists for exclusive interviews, while those considered ‘hostile’ are ignored, including within the party media. The government requires an ‘access card’ issued to journalists to cover government events or attend press conferences".
It added that while freedom of the press was guaranteed by the constitution, the legal and regulatory framework does not allow journalists to exercise their rights. Journalists are regularly the targets of Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP), and family members of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, killed in 2017, are even targeted with posthumous defamation lawsuits.
Although it is relatively easy to launch a media outlet, the small market offers limited sources of funding for independent media whose sustainability is undermined by non-transparent and discriminatory distribution of public funds.
On almost every issue of public interest, Maltese society suffers from deep polarisation. Reporting on certain topics such as migration or abortion remains unpopular and incites abuse towards journalists covering these topics. Very few journalists from minority groups work for the mainstream media. Investigative reporting is carried out by a handful of journalists, almost exclusively men.
Shift in mentality needed
On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, the Institute of Maltese Journalists called on the government to tangibly create an environment where journalists and media actors can continue carrying out their duty to serve democracy.
“The IGM notes recent statements by Prime Minister Robert Abela that the media is the fourth pillar of democracy, as acknowledged in the Labour Party’s electoral manifesto.
"As such, it expects the government to put its money where its mouth is and really, with facts, recognise it as such. In the light of such statements, it is indeed baffling how the government continues to push back on a recommendation by its own committee of experts to entrench the media in the enforceable parts of the country’s constitution,” the institute said.
The IGM called on the government to address other issues that are seriously undermining the media in Malta. Primary among them is the Freedom of Information Act which is weak, abused by the public authorities and in dire need of a total overhaul.
Along with this is a shift in mentality whereby information is given rather than kept under wraps. Other issues include the considerable financial difficulties being faced by media outlets.
In another statement, NGO Republika said that almost six years after the murder of Caruana Galizia and two years since the conclusion of the public inquiry, there had not been consultation with journalists to introduce laws that would better protect them.
Nothing was being done to ensure the independence of the public broadcaster and Malta still lacked laws that curbed abuse of power and interference with justice.
How the World Press Freedom Index works
This is the second World Press Freedom Index to have been compiled according to a new methodology devised in 2021 by a panel of experts from the academic and media world.
The methodology is based on a definition of press freedom as “the ability of journalists as individuals and collectives to select, produce, and disseminate news in the public interest independent of political, economic, legal, and social interference and in the absence of threats to their physical and mental safety”.
It uses five new indicators that shape the Index and provide a vision of press freedom in all its complexity: political context, legal framework, economic context, sociocultural context and safety.
In the 180 countries and territories ranked by RSF, these indicators are evaluated on the basis of a quantitative tally of abuses against journalists and media outlets, and a qualitative analysis based on the responses of hundreds of press freedom experts selected by RSF (including journalists, academics and human rights defenders) to more than 100 questions.
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