The Malta Independent 10 December 2022, Saturday
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Politicians treated like deity, journalists hated for challenging them - lecturer

Sabrina Zammit Sunday, 31 July 2022, 07:30 Last update: about 5 months ago

The nation has a tendency to love politicians and treat them as deity and hate those who challenge them, including journalists, said former journalist and senior media lecturer Rosemarie Calleja, in an interview with The Malta Independent.

There are times when the public demonises journalists who are seen to be trying to belittle or challenge politicians, simply because some people tend to idolise politicians and, for them, these politicians can do no wrong.

Malta has unfortunately experienced one such case, as journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed for doing her job, Calleja said. The country was shocked when she was assassinated, but this does not mean that the lesson has been learnt.

“If you portray the journalist as the devil we know what happens, like it clearly happened with Daphne,” Calleja, who received training at BBC World, said.

Calleja added that although the tools used by journalists might be constantly changing because of advancement in technology, their basic skills should not, as “journalists act as watchdogs on society and on those who take decisions.”

She added that journalism is considered as the fourth pillar in a democratic state, coming after the legislative, the executive and the judiciary.

Calleja was awarded a Fulbright scholarship where she will be researching media polarisation at Ohio State University as a visiting scholar in the next semester.

The senior lecturer at MCAST said that just because everyone has access to a phone it does not make them journalists and that although they are not recognised by law as being professionals, real journalists have a set standard of ethical codes that they adhere to.

“A journalist needs to ensure that whatever s/he is going to publish, or broadcast, is in the interest of the public and that it does more good than damage, regardless of their opinion,” she said.

Calleja also referred to an incident where developer Joe Portelli commented how nice a journalist’s job must be as he or she gets to chase people. This remark was made to a journalist who was asking him (Portelli) questions.

Calleja said that this behaviour should not be normalised. Such comments should not be allowed to drift by as if nothing happened, since they are causing more harm than good. She added that institutions representing journalists should take action immediately, before it is too late.

“Although we have laws concerning offending public officials, we do not have the same ones for journalists,” she said.

The senior media lecturer said that although journalists do not have a direct censorship, they can still face libels and SLAPPs which could prevent them from doing their job as they should, or at least intimidate them into not publishing a story. Calleja said that this makes it very obvious that the country needs to do more to protect its journalists.

“If the (Daphne)  public inquiry is fully and properly addressed, journalists will be more protected by law and maybe Malta’s position in World Press Index will improve.” One year has passed since the inquiry was made public, but the situation with regard to journalists has not changed.

Last March it was reported how Malta had the highest number of SLAPP cases per capita among 30 countries evaluated in a study conducted by the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation. A SLAPP is a strategic lawsuit against public participation intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defence until they abandon their criticism or opposition

“This reveals the urgent need for Malta to implement strong, precise and effective anti-SLAPP legislation to ensure that no one, ever again, is targeted as Daphne Caruana Galizia was for doing their job,” the report authors said.

When someone who holds a high position is society, including politicians, take a stand or make a speech, many members of the public follow their lead. They adopt the politician’s opinion and defend him or her against any criticism, including that by journalists. Such an influence has a great bearing on how people think of journalists, and very often they end up on the losing end.

“This unfortunately is happening in many other countries; people are losing their trust in journalists because of polarization, something which in Malta is very strong,” she said.

Asked whether she agreed if journalists should be issued a warrant to carry out their profession, she said that in her professional opinion, if this warrant is to be issued by a governmental institution, like the situation is with press cards, journalists would feel more pressured not to ask challenging questions to governmental authorities out of fear.

“It is like having a double-edged sword, something which I do not agree with”, she said.

She added that the publicly-owned media should be more balanced in its presentation of news.

Back in February, before the election campaign started, the PN had taken legal action after it felt it was victim of political bias and propaganda on PBS, which is state owned.

It was revealed earlier this month how the opposition won the case after Malta’s public broadcaster PBS was found by a judge to have breached the Constitution by failing to impartially report on a matter of political controversy.

Asked to comment on the matter, Calleja said that “it is a step in the right direction, because this is has been happening for a very long time  in Malta's broadcasting history.”

She added that having a national station which is favouring a political party over another is causing a disservice to the country, since the service is publicly funded.

Calleja said that that it is not ideal that Malta has two political members representing the two biggest political parties on the board of PBS. The members of this board should be people who actually understand the industry. “Competence should be a priority and not loyalty to the party,” she said.


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