The Malta Independent 18 August 2019, Sunday

TMID Editorial: Right to information - Stonewalling of the media

Saturday, 11 May 2019, 10:43 Last update: about 4 months ago

The hardest part of our job is chasing after answers.

Yes, it is worse than being threatened, sued or physically stopped from doing our work.

The worst part is waiting for answers, sending multiple reminders, calling up the people we need answers from and getting promised that the replies will be sent “soon”, only to wait some more but receive nothing.

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It happens all the time, with the unfortunate result that sometimes, in the rush of things and because of the passage of time, some stories are simply forgotten. This is not only highly annoying for people in our profession but also impinges on our readers’ right to information.

The worst performers in this field are the government and the Opposition. Yes, some ministries are more cooperative than others and we have a good working relationship with several communications officers. Some of them actually acknowledge our emails or phone calls and deliver the requested information within a reasonable timeframe.

But many others do not even acknowledge an email, let alone answer. Unless the replies make their political masters look good, of course. But if the replies are uncomfortable or embarrassing our emails are conveniently ignored.

This is more annoying at a time when both political parties and the government are bombarding us with press releases and press conferences. To give a clearer picture, the Department of Information sent no less than 25 emails on Thursday. The political parties have doubled the amount of press releases they send, most of which have no news value at all. And they expect us to publish them all.

We get constant phone calls and messages from all sides asking us to please publish their press releases or arrogantly asking why their PRs are not yet online.

It goes without saying that we do not publish the majority of press releases we receive. We are a news outlet, not a public notice board.

We find it unacceptable for a government ministry to take over two weeks to provide a reaction to, say, some damning environmental report, or for the Opposition to take a fortnight to come up with a reaction to the revised fuel stations policy.

But this does not only happen with the government and Opposition. Other entities, such as the police and the army do it too. There are several unanswered questions that we sent to the police, some of them weeks ago. There might be more than one reason why this happens: it might be due to understaffing, or because the replies might lead to public criticism.

Another reason might be the fact that the replies, before being sent to us, have to be vetted and approved by the respective government ministries. Unfortunately, we still live in a day and age where state entities and agencies that are supposed to be autonomous and free from political interference fall directly under government ministries, who restrict and control the information that goes out.

Last week we wrote about the need for state funding of the media, to help publishing houses survive in an already hostile environment. But that alone is not enough – government and political parties alike need to start treating media houses and, more importantly, their audiences, with more respect and transparency. The right for access to information should be upheld.

 

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