The Malta Independent 7 June 2023, Wednesday
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Book review: An impossible task

Noel Grima Sunday, 19 March 2023, 08:45 Last update: about 4 months ago

Reforming Malta's Media System

Authors: Joseph Borg and Therese Comodini Cachia

Publisher: Midsea Books / 2023

Pages: 383


Two of our foremost experts and practitioners in the media in Malta (former head of the church's media Fr Dr Joe Borg and former MP Therese Comodini Cachia) have come together to address what can and should be done to improve the situation and quality of the media in Malta.

It's an impossible task, at least that's how many, I included, have come to look at it. The situation is dire and the rot goes much deeper. Our democracy is in a far worse state than we realise. But that should not stop us from continuing to strive with all our efforts.

I would have preferred to get a historical analysis of the subject. We would then see how the media in Malta was never really free and was always tied to chains of power, first to the British overlords and then to the power that succeeded it at Castile.

When I started working in the media, in 1972, I worked at the Church's daily Maltese language newspaper. Trying to keep afloat and always beset by money problems, the paper which came to existence in 1970, succeeding the Young Christian Workers' Il-Haddiem, turned out to be a huge drain on the church's finances and was wound down in 1987, coincidentally after the Mintoff administration was defeated at the polls.

Technologically we were primitive, still working with letterpress and hot lead. Depending on the church for finances, we were fearful of Mintoff's terrible rages and we tiptoed round issues.

Thankfully the Nationalist Party under Eddie Fenech Adami grew from strength to strength and started challenging the Labour administration even when the danger was of a civil war.

We never recovered and meekly went to our grave.

Apart from us, there was (and still is) The Times, an institution created by the British overlord which kept going through the war years and the bombs. Not even Mintoff could bring it to heel, not even when his rioters burned it  down. But the existence of this bulwark did not mean that our democracy was alive and kicking.

This background, I feel, is important to understand why the media in our time is so weak. When the Nationalists came to power in 1987, they liberalised the airwaves and allowed freedom of broadcasting. But they were outmanoeuvred and the political stations were the result. The result was the present anomaly - that Malta is the only country where political parties own media stations.

This is roughly where we are today. The situation has actually deteriorated. Other countries have their own problems where media freedom is involved but our problems seem to have multiplied especially since the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia and the Robert Abela penchant to somehow block any suggestion to improve transparency and the rule of law.

The book makes mincemeat of the suggestions brought up by the government-approved committee of journalists (who we are being told, were not aware that one of them was being funded by the same government on the side) and the government's heavy-handed and bureaucratic tightening of controls which would have further stymied freedom of information and expression.

Where do we go from here? It would be great if the suggestions in the book were to be implemented but I seriously doubt if there is any chance of that happening in the foreseeable future. In short, the book is like a roadmap but built on the sea, rather than on land.

Good effort though. There is much to stimulate and thought provoking, even though it is heavy going in many parts.

The analysis begins by discussing the position of the media in the constitution of the country when we all know the constitution must be revamped from top to bottom. It then goes on to discuss self-regulation with some examples from other countries.

Then, given the authors' direct involvement in the sector, it discusses public broadcasting without clearly describing the horror of the present state of affairs which has taken us back to the "Run, rabbit, run" times. All the proposals it makes are worthless unless there is a thorough reversal, which at the moment looks improbable.

The last part deals with providing protection for the journalists against the new phenomenon of SLAPP cases which was used first if I remember correctly against Daphne.

We have lived through the bad old days of Xandir Malta and come through them. Undoubtedly we will live through the present situation. It's through such manipulation that majorities of 40,000 are run up. But the tide is turning, as evidenced by the latest survey.

The book includes many footnotes and evidences thorough research. But I am left with a question that stymied me throughout the book and which I found no explanation for it: what is the difference between ECtHR and ECHR?

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