The Malta Independent 13 June 2024, Thursday
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As the campaigns come to an end, is a silent day still relevant in the age of social media?

Albert Galea Friday, 7 June 2024, 08:38 Last update: about 5 days ago

The campaigns have fallen silent, and voters now have a day of peace from politics to reflect on who to vote for in tomorrow’s European Parliament and Local Council elections.

Or do they? The Day of Reflection is something governed by Maltese laws for any election or referendum, and it essentially means that nobody – not politicians, parties, or any member of the public – can engage publicly in anything which may influence voters. 

This extends to the media as well, meaning that no media house today or tomorrow may legally publish anything related to politics.

But the advent of social media has made this concept ever more difficult to enforce. While the media remains constrained, more and more people – sometimes including the politicians themselves – are either ignoring the Day of Silence or finding ways to get around it through social media.

Article 114 of Malta’s General Elections Act stipulates the following when it comes to the Day of Silence:

“During the day on which an election of Members of the House is held and during the day immediately preceding such an election, no person shall address any public meeting or any other gathering whatsoever in any place or building accessible to the public, or on the broadcasting media, on any matter intended or likely to influence voters in the exercise of the franchise, or publish, cause to be published any newspaper, printed matter or other means of communication to the public containing any matter aforesaid, or issue or cause to be issued any statement or declaration on any matter aforesaid or knowingly distribute any newspaper, printed matter, or other means of communication, or any statement or declaration as aforesaid.”

Any person acting in contravention of this shall be liable to court action, and may face a fine of up to 1,164.69 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or to both such fine and imprisonment.

The clause applies not just to general elections, but also to European Parliament elections, Local Council elections, and even referendums.  Three media stations – ONE TV, Radju Marija, and Campus FM – for example all fell foul of these laws in the day preceding the 2011 divorce referendum and were fined.

The question in the present day has been asked however, how relevant these laws remain from a media perspective, particularly given the popularity of social media in today’s day and age.

Fr Joe Borg, the chairman of the Church’s Beacon Media Group, the editor of Campus FM and for 13 years the chair of the Public Broadcasting Services’ Editorial Board, when presented with this question told The Malta Independent that it is difficult to stop social media even if the law were to be updated to reflect it. Meanwhile Dr Natalino Fenech, former PBS Head of News who is also a former news editor at the Malta Independent on Sunday and had also worked with the Times of Malta, said that social media has made the concept of the silent period redundant.

Speaking to this newsroom, Fr Borg said: “Umberto Eco believes that the social media heralded the invasion of the fools. On the other hand, Zuckerberg says that the social media empower people.”

“On the so-called day of reflection, the traditional media are silent but the social media are buzzing with all sorts of information. Do we have the degradation of democracy as Eco believes or its enhancement, if Zuckerberg is right? Independently of the answer one opts to, the hard truth is that one cannot stop the social media, even if the law were to say so,” Fr Borg said.

Fr Borg continued that it is his belief that television, radio and newspapers should not join the noise that exists on social media and that more silence could actually be created by not publishing any polls during the last week of the electoral campaign.

“Is it logical to say that if there is already a lot of noise on the social media, we should also have more noise on the traditional media? Not necessarily so. One can say that since there is already a lot of noise, a little bit of silence in other quarters does not do any harm. If anything, it can do some good. Consequently, I think that television, radio and newspapers should not join the fray. More silence could be created if, for example, no poll results should be published during the last week of the campaign. Polls do not only reflect perceptions, but they also create them,” he said.

Furthmore, Fr Borg said that “reflection on how to vote should not be a one-day stand.”

“Those who did not reflect in the weeks before will hardly be expected to have a Damascene moment in the last 24 four hours.  For democracy to thrive what we need is an educational system that helps people to be critical and discerning, more than one day of so-called reflection,” Fr Borg concluded.

Dr Natalino Fenech, in response to the question, said: “The principle behind silent day is to allow voters to reflect and make the right choice before going to vote. Throughout Europe there are different rules, with some having long blackout periods, particularly where opinion polls are concerned, some apply a blackout a day or two before while others not applying any prohibitions at all.”

“The proliferation of social media has long rendered the concept of the silence period redundant as it is difficult to enforce. This is a bit ironic that when media access was limited, there used to be ‘effective’ media blackouts, and with the proliferation of propaganda, when we are inundated with messages to insane levels through traditional and new media, the silent period is now impossible to enforce. A law that is impossible to enforce has no place on the statute books,” Fenech adds

“I also think that people locally would have long decided who to vote for before the silent day, perhaps without even reflecting much! Hence the significance of ‘reflection day’ for these people is pointless anyway,” Fenech concluded.

 

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