The Malta Independent 21 May 2024, Tuesday
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Press freedom deficiencies

Mark Said Sunday, 21 April 2024, 08:14 Last update: about 2 months ago

In May of last year, Malta dropped six places in the World Press Freedom Index, making it the worst-ever ranking. We had a public inquiry into the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia that listed a comprehensive set of reforms the government was asked to implement. Following growing pressure from various sources and local and international bodies, we had a government-appointed committee of media experts that submitted their comments and recommendations to the government. There followed the tabling in parliament of the proposed bills for the protection of journalism with no public consultation whatsoever until, once more, following growing pressure to send the proposed bills back to the drawing board, the government had to suspend the whole process.

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What happened thereafter poses the question today of whether, notwithstanding everything, our media and press freedom have all it takes to make it to the top rankings of the World Press Freedom Index. Journalists have long been coping with a highly polarised environment under the strong influence of our political parties. Because of this, most of them would have their independence reasonably questioned. We are still facing a veiled threat from the ruling party to exert a strong influence over the public broadcaster and use public advertising to put pressure on private media. We still have politicians selecting specific journalists for exclusive interviews while those considered hostile are ignored, including within the party media. We still sometimes have the requirement of an access card issued to journalists to cover government events or attend press conferences. And do our law enforcement institutions have sufficient resources to effectively protect journalists who might face serious threats, criminal abuse, or the suppression of freedom of expression?

Freedom of expression is a universal human right. It is not the prerogative of the politician. It is not the privilege of the journalist. In their day-to-day work, journalists are simply exercising every citizen’s right to free speech. Sure, a free press is fundamental to a democratic society. It seeks out and circulates news, information, ideas, comments, and opinions and holds those in authority to account. The press also provides a platform for a multiplicity of voices to be heard. At the national, regional, and local levels, it is the public’s watchdog, activist, and guardian, as well as an educator, entertainer, and contemporary chronicler.

The battle between politicians and the press in the wake of the Daphne Caruana Galizia Public Inquiry might have abated but not disappeared. Let’s face it, press freedom can easily be circumvented and shackled by possible future proposals for tougher criminal laws against government leaks, efforts to water down Freedom of Information legislation, which our journalists and media have long been campaigning against, new court reporting restrictions, and the use of state surveillance powers to uncover journalists’ sources.

Furthermore, journalists are already subject to a wide range of legal restrictions. These include libel laws, official secrets, anti-terrorism legislation, the law of contempt and other legal restrictions on court reporting, the law of confidence and the development of privacy and data protection actions, intellectual property laws, legislation regulating public order, trespass, harassment, anti-discrimination, and obscenity.

Should we not continue to make the case for independent self-regulation of the press versus any form of state-backed regulation? The big picture is that the work of journalists reflects how we, as humans, interact with each other and is a measure of how well our society is functioning. The principles of interaction that apply to us as individuals are carried through and apply to how broader social institutions, such as the media and government, interact with each other. You can tell a lot about the state of a country’s governance, as well as its commitment to democracy and economic and social development, by looking at whether it respects its citizens and its media, print, broadcast, and online.

This is a critical moment for our country to act in defence of democracy by strengthening protections for press freedom and other essential human rights, without which true democracy cannot exist. We must shore up protections for independent journalism, thus enabling us to credibly defend media freedom as a fundamental right around the world.

When developing new legislation or regulations that could affect press freedom, lawmakers should conduct robust human rights due diligence. This should include input from civil society in order to identify and mitigate the risks that these measures could pose to freedom of expression and information and to any essential rights that could affect the work of the press. The scope of such risk assessments should also include evaluations of how such laws or regulations could potentially be abused to restrict press freedom and repress journalists and independent media.

Attacks on journalists and media workers are the most serious form of censorship. Our government must demonstrate its commitment to protecting journalism by vigorously defending journalists from verbal harassment, both online and offline, and from physical threats, assaults, and harm. This includes ensuring that public authorities thoroughly and swiftly investigate all attacks on journalists, in line with international commitments to the safety of journalists.

We must work harder to ensure fair market conditions that enable the development of diverse and pluralistic media markets and protect independent media from political influence. The only security for all is a free press. A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly, without freedom, controlled media and journalism will never be anything but bad.

No wonder James Madison put freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the very first American amendment so long ago. If we cannot speak out, if we cannot challenge those in power, there is no guarantee of the rights that follow.

 

Dr Mark Said is a lawyer

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