On October 15, 1979, Times of Malta journalists looked out of the window and saw a group of people running in a raging fury towards the main door, screaming “Issa għat-Times” (Now for the Times). In no time, the building was on fire.
The premises may have been brought down but the newspaper was not silenced. The Times was on the streets the following day, telling the shameful story of the night before.
This was the newspaper’s response to that despicable, violent attack on press freedom. More than three decades later, an assault of a different nature – but with the same aim – is taking shape.
The independent press is under siege. Some of the attacks come through news outlets linked to the government, which target individual journalists and dispense misinformation aimed at damaging their integrity and credibility, while shielding the government from legitimate scrutiny and criticism.
An aide to the Prime Minister sits at Castille and vilifies journalists who refuse to fall in line. He does this with the Prime Minister’s blessing since Joseph Muscat has repeatedly defended his actions – ironically in the name of free speech.
Journalists are coming under indirect pressure to curb their reporting or change direction. Meanwhile, ‘scoops’ are handed over to the more compliant media. Later, it turns out they have been used, when other sections of the press have scrutinised the story.
There are attacks on another front. Last week, The Sunday Times of Malta published an article by Keith Schembri, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, who referred to a debt he is owed by a subsidiary of Allied Group, our publishers. This debt arises from ordinary commercial dealings. He claimed he wanted to “set the record straight” but his reference to this debt can only be construed as a veiled threat to this organisation.
Mr Schembri must be labouring under the delusion that Allied directors wield some kind of influence on editorial decisions. They don’t, which is how it should be in a truly independent press.
Meanwhile, press laws are being abused in an attempt to muzzle the press in its pursuit of truth in the Panama affair, with libel suits becoming the order of the day.
This newspaper has an obligation to expose scandalous behaviour, in its sacred duty to uphold democracy. We do not engage in “character assassination” or “conspiracy theories”. If the truths exposed shed a bad light on those who wield power, it is their actions that must be questioned and not the motivation of the press whose role it is to hold power to account.
In seeking first the public interest and the good of this country above all, it is the media’s job to ask the right questions and demand answers. A free press opens the government’s record to external scrutiny. And it must take a firm stand against any attempt by the government to suppress it. It is not a responsibility this newspaper will shirk.
The Panama Papers have led to resignations and investigations across the globe while this country’s government keeps trying to sweep a major scandal under the carpet. The Prime Minister persists in protecting the two men who work most closely to him, as if opening an account in a secretive jurisdiction while in government is a normal thing to do. It is not. It is wrong and it has damaged Malta. This newspaper will continue to drive that point home.
Malta has become a disturbing example of how a political elite can attempt to roll back democracy, even in the heart of Europe, by undermining the freedom of the press. A weakened media is of no benefit to anyone except an overbearing government.
We stood strong back then. We will stand strong now against any attempt to suppress freedom of expression.
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