The report by six of the world’s leading media freedom organisations published on October 19, on freedom of expression in Malta, makes grim reading. Unrelated events since then, particularly the court’s gag on the popular programme Xarabank a week later, have further highlighted the gathering threats to media freedom in Malta.

In the report, this year’s enactment of the Media and Defamation Act and the repeal of criminal libel are the only bright spots in an otherwise bleak media landscape. For although that law on paper now affords more freedoms to journalists, above and beyond that law, journalism in Malta faces complex threats.

One of the chief findings of the mission is the lack of pluralism. This is in large part due to the usurpation of large swathes of the media by the main political parties – both parties have TV stations, newspapers and radio stations. Meanwhile, the State broadcaster, TVM, is carefully loyal to the status quo, any notions of functioning as a watchdog and holding power to account having long been absent from its treatment of local news.

When it comes to the independent media, instead of engaging with it the government has been resorting to cynical manoeuverings that range from crafty circumvention to financial coercion. In seeking to bypass the traditional media, the government has developed a slick and formidable apparatus with which it targets the voters directly. This media offensive is deployed on social media mostly and includes professional yet propagandist videos. This would be par for the course were it not also accompanied by the deliberate sidelining of dreaded independent-minded journalists who might dare to ask some difficult questions.

Requests to ministers and prime minister for interviews are ignored, many freedom of information requests are met by stalling tactics and outright rejection, and when ministries are contacted for information they mostly request questions via e-mail and then many of these e-mails either remain unanswered or the answers are so vague as to be meaningless.

The report also laments the “preferential and politicised allocation of government advertising subsidies to media outlets with links to, or supportive of, the ruling party”. The Times is assuredly not among those enjoying generous allocations of government spending on advertising right now.

All of this is complicating a difficult terrain for independent journalists in the aftermath of the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. The government has deliberately failed to take stock of the threat journalists may be facing and much less has it done anything to prevent a repeat. Government inaction – with not even the institution of an independent public inquiry to identify preventive measures – has allowed the sense of impunity and antagonism to prevail. And as the report points out, “it is of particular concern that public officials continue to publicly denigrate the legacy of Daphne Caruana Galizia, contributing to a climate of increasing hostility towards independent media”.

The decree of Magistrate Joe Mifsud that prohibited Xarabank from broadcasting interviews in the Liam Debono case – on which independent editors have voiced concern – verged on the hostile in language. The Attorney General, the decree says, expressed his “total and unconditional disgust” about the supposed lapse of journalistic ethics in cases that are sub judice, while the magistrate lamented what he sees as the disappearance of the journalistic ethics of old. Such sweeping statements were not necessary to include in the reasoning behind the ban and such language may, inadvertently, give legitimacy to the baser attacks taking place on the independent press and other forms of free media so crucial to democratic functioning.

An example of those attacks is from the trolls who sow intimidation on the message boards of independent outlets and on social media, where vitriol is rife. Another is last week’s venomous assaults on blogger Manuel Delia after he broke the news that the wife of the Opposition Leader wants a separation – news that is undoubtedly in the public interest given the impact this development may have on Adrian Delia’s public role and persona. Such overt antagonism towards journalists – to which the government conveniently turns a blind eye –  is a dangerous trend in this already ugly post-Daphne climate of extreme polarisation. It must on no account be encouraged, even if not deliberately, by those who occupy high office in the justice system, of all areas.

It is in the country’s vital interest for the government to nurture constructive engagement with the independent media. Beyond the new laws, progress as they may represent, it is incumbent on the government to foster not only the survival but also the growth of vibrant, diverse independent media. The present situation is exacerbating the sector’s financial woes that have grown inevitably out of the internet age of free content. It may be time to consider the setting up a central fund to prop up the independent media houses while providing strict guarantees of their autonomy. 

If media freedom is to encouraged, the government and Opposition will one day also have to consider a joint effort to turn PBS into a truly independent and investigative media organisation, not the notice board that it is today.

A time must also come when the ownership of media houses by the political parties is curbed, redirecting resources towards the type of journalism that upholds, and not undermines, free thought and democracy.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial


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