The Malta Independent 17 June 2024, Monday
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The fourth pillar

Saturday, 27 April 2024, 08:09 Last update: about 3 months ago

Joe Azzopardi

“The media is the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that's power. Because they control the minds of the masses.” – Malcolm X

The media today holds a solid power and responsibility in a democratic society. Such power makes people consider it as the fouth pillar of democracy as it can be defined as the eyes, the ears and the mouth of society.

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The media plays an important role in making and unmaking a government and therefore it plays an important role in influencing society.The media is supposed to be responsible for controlling the other pillars of democracy and keeping the public informed about them. The media represents the eyes and ears of society. Media as a democracy pillar uses journalism as a means to improve the quality of public life and promote democratic reforms. It serves as a glue to keep the society together and it enhances the ability and desire to listen to others.

Throughout Malta’s recent political history, the Labour Party was always hostile to the free press. The torching of The Times way back in Mintoff’s golden age was a case in point. Mintoff’s thugs did not manage to silence The Times as the newspaper was for sale the following morning. This perhaps was the darkest chapter against the freedom of the press in Malta. Physical attacks, including police raids, were a common experience that the workers at l-Istamperija went through on a regular basis.

That fire and those attacks were renewed as soon as the new face of Labour took power in 2013.  The attacks this time were more subtle but still very treacherous. The thugs changed the colour of their collar from blue to white. They climaxed in October 2017 when journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated after a bomb was remotely detonated in her car. The murder followed years of physical and verbal abuse against her, some orchestrated from Joseph Muscat’s Castille throngs.

The Freedom of Information Act, which came into force in September 2012  was aimed to institute a right to information held by the government and public authorities to promote accountability and transparency. Every public authority was meant to make information available to members of the general public who wish to access official documents from any authority.

The Media Freedom Rapid response (MFRR), which is organised by an alliance led by the European Centre for the Press and Media Freedom, monitors and reacts to violations of media freedom in EU member states. The project provides legal and practical support to protect journalists and media workers. It started operations in 2020 and is funded by the European Commission.

In the last published monitoring report 2022, the MFRR put Malta’s press freedom ranking at the 81st place, behind countries like Namibia, Trinidad & Tobago and Botswana. Since Labour took power in 2013, Malta’s press freedom nose-dived a shocking 36 places from number 45 to 81. The report listed quite a number of instances where the press freedom was breached.

The report describes the absence of transparency before the March 2022 elections when Robert Abela day in day out refused to answer questions by journalists about his dealings with suspected criminals.

Attempts to impede access to information and the case of assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia were also among the alerts mentioned by the monitoring report.

Various media came under attack by a disinformation campaign at discrediting independent news media, MPs from the Opposition and civil society and other NGOs who ‘dared’ criticise the government.

Online news portals of TVM, Times of Malta, Newsbook, Net News and others were targeted by fake versions of their websites featuring fake news with the aim of discrediting government critics.

In Malta, journalists have to cope with a highly polarised environment under the strong influence of political parties. In 2021, a public inquiry into the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was concluded, listing a comprehensive set of reforms the government has been reluctant to implement - Reporters Without Borders

The report cites the case of assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, an epitome of the free press. The report found that her ‘isolation’ by persons, including officers at the Office of the Prime Minister aimed at discrediting her investigations into government corruption related to public projects. This isolation created a climate that gave those who wanted to eliminate her a golden opportunity.

Another alert was the appeal of different ministries and authorities against a decision by the Data Protection Commissioner who ordered the release of information about the use of public money requested by the local media.

Robert Abela recently said that if the media is to become one of democracy pillars it has to be checked like the state’s other three pillars scrutinise each other. Really? And does scrunity secure action? No it does not. The prime minister himself was found guilty of breaching ethics when promoting himself on a video paid by the tax-payers.  The prime minister refused to apologise even though the Commissioner for Standards offered to close he case if he did.

Repubblika, the civil society NGO, commentated by saying that “the comments made by the prime minister indicate a desire for more ‘regulation’ which is another word for increased government intrusion into independent journalism.

It is good to remember that Robert Abela has managed to put Malta on top in Europe. No, not as a happy country or a place where the Rule of Law is supreme. Malta is at the crest of all EU countries with the biggest number of SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) per capita. Government and government entities have repeatedly refused to give information in 40 Freedom of Information requests on payments to Saviour Balzan’s media house. Abela defied the Information and Data Protection Officer’s decision that such information should be made public. He ordered ministries and entities to fight in court. He lost all cases that were decided and he knows that he will lose the rest. So if you think that Robert Abela is some kind of media champion think again. Like his predecessors the prime minister hates unbiased media, although he bestows millions to the ‘friendly’ ones.

Joe Azzopardi is a former official at the Ministries of the Environment, Justice and Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs
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