Press freedom in Malta continued deteriorating, with the country falling 12 places in an index being published by Reporters Without Borders on Thursday.

Malta had already dropped 18 places in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index last year. This year, it fell from 65th to 77th place, posting the third sharpest drop in the European Union and Balkans region, following Serbia and Macedonia, which fell 14 places.

Malta is now the third lowest ranking EU Member state for media freedom, followed by Hungary and Bulgaria.

The report measures the level of media freedom by looking at the level of pluralism, media independence, the environment and self-censorship, among other things.

Reporters Without Borders noted that journalists in Malta were trying to continue the work of anti-corruption writer Daphne Caruana Galizia. “They are shedding light on the island state’s rampant corruption and money-laundering despite an oppressive and worrying climate still marked by [Ms Caruana Galizia]’s murder in October 2017,” the organisation said.

A widespread technique of threatening to exhaust journalists’ financial resources and threatening legal action

It criticised what it described as a widespread technique of threatening to exhaust journalists’ financial resources and threatening legal action. 

Reporters Without Borders warned criticism of the media across the world was becoming a political weapon that weakened journalism when it became systematic. “To this end, political leaders have had no scruples about using state-owned media that have been turned into propaganda outlets or, at least, enlisted in their cause,” it commented.

Read: Press freedom organisations reiterate 'serious concerns' about Malta's freedom of expression

Both the Labour and the Nationalist parties have fired missives at the media recently. Times of Malta has commented editorially that the Labour government is “evidently hell-bent” to bleed The Sunday Times of Malta and the Times of Malta to death, including by shrinking advertising spend. It also said the Nationalist Party could not be allowed to attack the free press, a prime ingredient in a democracy.

Read: Editorial - The PN vs the free press

Following a two-day mission in Malta late last year, Reporters Without Borders warned the country was failing to live up to its obligations to guarantee and safeguard freedom of expression.

It remarked that the apparent lack of progress on the investigation into Ms Caruana Galizia’s murder was having a chilling effect on public interest investigative reporting.

Hatred of journalists degenerating into violence

The number of countries where journalists can work safely is plummeting, Reporters Without Borders says.

The report said that hatred of journalists whipped up by populist and authoritarian leaders has degenerated into violence across the world, it warns.

A total of 348 journalists were detained for providing news and information in 2018.

"If the political debate slides towards a civil war-style atmosphere, where journalists are treated as scapegoats, then democracy is in great danger," said Christophe Deloire, director general of RSF.

The period since Donald Trump's election in 2016 has been one of the "American journalism community's darkest moments", the report said, linking Trump's "notorious anti-press rhetoric" with "terrifying harassment" aimed particularly at women and journalists of colour.

Government statement

In a statement, the government said it was committed to ensure that journalists in Malta could work without hindrance and in freedom, in accordance with the core values of a democratic society.

The Media and Defamation Act came into force in Malta, a new law regulating the freedom of the press and which among its various reforms in the sector abolished criminal libel, introduced the concept of the ‘citizen journalist’, introduced the concept of mediation, introduced various provisions which strengthened freedom of the media and prohibited the multiplicity of libel lawsuits in Malta on the same journalistic report.

At the same time, the new law added no new burdens on journalists and owners of media houses in terms of civil libel damages.

The government said that, in 2018, only 19 civil libel cases were filed, a third of the amount presented in 2017 (57) and a quarter of the amount presented in 2008 (77). This was indicative of the growing levels of freedom of journalistic expression.

Concurrently, the right for any person to safeguard his or her reputation within the parameters of the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights had been kept, the government said.

The report also criticises the fact that political parties in Malta own their own media outlets. The Government stresses that this situation has been unchanged since 1994. Media houses, which are privately owned, also have all the journalistic freedom to scrutinise and criticise all that they deem appropriate. The National Broadcaster also plays an important role and studies show that the news services of the national station are reliable and respected.

The Government is committed to see that justice is done in the case of the barbaric homicide of Daphne Caruana Galizia. In fact, in less than 50 days from the homicide, three Maltese nationals were charged with her murder and they are facing ongoing proceedings in Court. At the same time investigators, assisted by foreign investigative authorities such as the FBI, Europol, Interpol and the Netherlands Forensic Institute amongst others, have left no stone unturned in their quest to bring to Court any other persons involved in this murder. At the same time, an independent and autonomous magisterial inquiry presided by Magistrate Neville Camilleri is ongoing.

The Government contends that it has no objection for the launching of an independent public inquiry into whether the homicide of Ms Caruana Galizia could have been prevented, as is being requested, once that the current criminal inquiry and investigations are concluded. This stance is being taken on expert advice, both local and international, so that the pending criminal investigation is not adversely affected by another parallel public inquiry.

The Government also refers to the issue of the possibility of having a multiplicity of libel lawsuits filed in foreign jurisdictions on media reports originating from Malta. It reiterates that it is in favour of any measure taken at European level which helps to safeguard freedom of expression in this sense.

This is a reformist government with a will and commitment to continue with the ongoing reform process in the justice sector started in 2013. This process has already led to the implementation of several laws and reforms: a law deleting time-barring by prescription on claims of corruption by holders of political offices, a party financing legislation, a whistle-blower protection act, a law limiting the power of the Attorney General in drug-related cases, a new Parliamentary mechanism on appointment of chairpersons of main regulatory authorities and non-career Ambassadors, and a law establishing the Bureau for Recovery Assets. The Government has already stated that this reform will continue and has already made it public that the Government will be implementing several proposals as discussed after the Venice Commission published its opinion on this sector.

This Government is committed to further strengthen freedom of speech, democracy and the rule of law.