Updated April 30 with link to Caruana Galizia family statement

I have a deep dislike of this-and-that world indexes. They are reductionist, and they gloss over local history and political culture. They are, in a word, useless. The 2019 World Press Freedom Index (RSF Index), recently released by Reporters Without Borders, is no exception. Malta is down 12 places to 77th, a demotion that has been lapped up by those who like to tell us that the country faces a mounting threat to press freedom.

I know that journalism in Malta has a number of systemic problems. The bit I’m not convinced about is that press freedom is more threatened today than it was, say, five years ago (when the ranking was 45). The chargesheet presented by the RSF Index is flimsy, and in any case mostly beside the point. 

Take cyber harassment. The charge is that press freedom is increasingly under threat, as swelling ranks of Labour trolls take to the social media to systematically harass journalists and other people they don’t like. Journalists, we’re told, live in terror, especially in the aftermath of the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

I wonder if anyone is ever going to be honest about this. Let me try. To say that Daphne pulled no punches is both cliché and understatement. She would stop at absolutely nothing to savage and ridicule people, including journalists, she didn’t like, and she was invariably more than happy to publish comments by readers – many of them anonymous – who did the same and worse. If that’s cyber harassment, Daphne’s blog was its apotheosis.

Should we therefore denounce her memory and legacy? Of course not. A few months before she was assassinated, I wrote in this column that the problem was not that there was a Daphne, but rather that there weren’t two, or 10. Even when I blanched at what she wrote, I never once questioned her right to write it. On the contrary, I thought it a rare flower that there was someone whose pen could savage and ridicule so effectively.

Which is why I will also defend the Labour ‘trolls’ that apparently are all over the social media. They have as much right to be nasty as Daphne did. If Reporters Without Borders believe that cyber harassment is a threat to press freedom, they have no choice but to think the same of Daphne’s work. I’d disagree in both cases.

The RSF index points to certain problems that are endemic to journalism in Malta. I quote directly: “Most of the media in the country is directly owned and controlled by political parties, as analysis also shows the State broadcaster’s bias towards the government is to the extent that major corruption stories go unreported. In addition, the independent media in the country is increasingly dependent on massive expenditure by the government on advertising, which leads to control of information and the push of pro-government agendas.”

There are a thousand things the matter with the way this country is governed, but a threatened press freedom is not one of them

The first bit is especially odd. I’m old enough to remember the reforms that made it possible for parties to set up their own stations. The idea then was that they were a great leap forward towards press freedom. As with chocolate and toothpaste, the public would never again rely on the State broadcaster as their only source – rather, they could choose who to listen to, and who to believe.

No matter, because Reporters Without Borders now tell us that Eddie Fenech Adami’s reforms were nothing but a ploy to control the press.

That the State broadcaster is biased in favour of the government is a truism. If it wasn’t, an unlettered government stooge and apologist like Brian Hansford would be drawing bingo numbers at a Labour coffee morning. Thing is, however, that what was once called ‘Dardir Malta’ has been a constant for decades. The State broadcaster is neither more nor less biased than it ever was. In other words, no ranking lost on that one.

The independent media, we’re told, is increasingly dependent on government advertising. I doubt this is true. I remember writing, way back in 2010, about the reams of full-page government ads (sorry, ‘information’) all over the papers. If it wasn’t a problem then, why should it be now?

Besides, are Reporters Without Borders seriously telling us that a government that doesn’t subsidise the independent press is a threat to press freedom? Could be straight out of Orwell: ‘Freedom is dependence’.

The RSF index also complains that the government continues to refuse calls for an independent public inquiry into whether Daphne Caruana Galizia’s death could have been prevented. Exactly what this has to do with press freedom is beyond me, but never mind.

The only way to prevent Daphne’s assassination would have been to give her police protection. As far as I’m aware she was offered it more than once, and refused. She was happy to risk her life rather than have her journalistic work compromised by some prying officer. That decision cost her her life, but it also shows how seriously she took her work. Point is, that kind of inquiry would be a waste of time and money. 

Finally, the RSF index states that MPs and members of government “actively silence” any calls by civil society for justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia. That, I’m afraid, is both untrue and irrelevant. Civil society, and journalists, are perfectly free to call for justice for Daphne. Many of us have done so, and none have been silenced in any way.

Except one. It is clear that there is an active government policy to immediately remove the candles and flowers placed by activists in Valletta, on the flimsy excuse that they damage the Great Siege monument. I find this shameful. I also find that it has absolutely nothing to do with press freedom.

There are a thousand things the matter with the way this country is governed, but a threatened press freedom is not one of them. Whether or not the press chooses to exercise its freedom is, of course, another thing altogether.

Read: Statement by Daphne Caruana Galizia's family in reply to this article

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece


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