Aware of how good governance has been thrown to the wind and the rule of law often respected in the breach, many may not have been surprised to learn that Malta dropped 12 places in the Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 press freedom index. But one may be perturbed, even shocked, to realise that this island has fallen 31 places since 2016.

In his now characteristic I-am-on-top-of-everything attitude, the Justice Minister reacted saying the government is committed to ensure journalists can work “without hindrance and in all freedom, in accordance with the core values of a democratic society”.

He mentions the Media and Defamation Act, which, among other things, abolished criminal libel, introduced mediation and prohibited the multiplicity of libel lawsuits on the same journalistic report. The minister then notes that, last year, 19 civil libel cases were filed, a third of the amount presented in 2017 and a quarter when compared to 2008, considering this as being indicative “of the growing levels of freedom of journalistic expression”.

The minister may be right, however, the drop in the number of libel cases opened in 2018 could also have been a direct and indirect result of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder in October 2017. According to Reporters Without Borders, she was facing no fewer than 42 civil and five criminal defamation lawsuits when she was killed. Most were withdrawn, some genuinely out of respect but others, no doubt, because of the international attention that was turned on Malta.

Ms Caruana Galizia’s death was, no doubt, a prime reason why Malta dropped in the press freedom index. However, freedom of expression in this country did not deteriorate because of her death. Indeed, she died because of the collapse in the rule of law and the weak institutions, which, in turn, led to rights being either stifled or not being adequately protected. That includes the right to freedom of expression and information.

Capturing the mastermind/s of the murder and all perpetrators being found guilty in court will, of course, bring closure to the family but that does not necessary mean all is well on the freedom of expression front.

Ms Caruana Galizia was silenced permanently by placing a powerful explosive device under the driver’s seat of the car she was in. Other journalists and media houses can be gagged by attacking their credibility, making it difficult for them to obtain information, stopping the flow of State advertising in their direction and urging others, including big businesses, to do so. Perhaps worst of all is intimidating their sources by all possible means.

Reporters Without Borders rightly note that the decline in press freedom in Europe has gone hand in hand with the erosion of the region’s institutions by increasingly authoritarian governments.

Chief Justice Emeritus Vincent De Gaetano made a similar warning some years back when he wrote in Id-Dritt law journal: “One of the first victims, if not invariably the first victim, of the erosion of democracy and of fundamental human rights and freedoms, is freedom of speech. The reason is obvious although sometimes we fail to see it: speech, communication, exchange of information, the ‘free trade of ideas’, as some would call it; these, alone or in combination, have the power to expose the truth – and that truth may be uncomfortable for some people, especially politicians.” 

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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