The systematic asphyxiation of the media happening all around the world is without question a step down a slippery and dangerous slope leading to the attrition of democracy. People who do not realise the implications and ramifications of this, or who realise but do nothing about it, risk their freedom.
The media is often referred to as the ‘Fourth Estate’ or the ‘fourth pillar of democracy’; it is supposed to keep an honest, unbiased watch on the other three estates, which form the State: the Legislative (Parliament), the Executive (Government) and the Judiciary (Court).
The Fourth Estate is synonymous with freedom of thought, speech and expression and the right to information; these are all rights of each and every citizen without exception, and they are vital for a democracy to function and to thrive.
The fact that recently in Parliament, the Labour Party voted against the protection of journalists from SLAPP suits is not exactly conducive to freedom of expression and unfettered access to information, and it does not bode well for democracy in Malta.
Rather than seeking advice and exploring ways to protect our journalists from SLAPP suits (suits that cannot even be defended because of the exorbitant cost required), justice minister Owen Bonnici sought advice on how to quash PN MP Jason Azzopardi’s motion in Parliament that proposed a mechanism for the protection of journalists from suits that have a chilling effect on the media.
Of course given Bonnici’s shameful, documented collusion in Henley & Partners’ SLAPP suit threats against assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, his attempt to quash the motion was not a big surprise.
The right to information that is in the public interest is often being thwarted by the government trotting out hackneyed excuses. Commercial sensitivity is the reason, or excuse, why contracts involving huge sums of taxpayers’ money are hidden from the public, or presented heavily redacted.
Look no further than the contract that the government signed with Vitals. When, eventually, the government did table the contract in Parliament, it was heavily redacted with many whole pages missing.
The Shift News also reported on Thursday that an 18-year agreement between the government and Azerbaijan’s SOCAR Trading for the supply of liquified natural gas (LNG) to the Electrogas power station carried Konrad Mizzi’s signature and was hidden from the public. The information was revealed in a recently-leaked FIAU report that PN MEP David Casa presented to a magistrate.
The barbaric execution of Malta’s leading anti-corruption journalist was an attempt to intimidate and muzzle the free media; “shut up or else”. The very fact that this heinous crime happened shows that we are not free to ask questions in Malta. The very fact that this heinous crime happened shows that those behind the assassination of a journalist, mother, daughter, sister, wife thought they could get away with murder.
The Broadcasting Authority is tasked with supervising all local broadcasting stations and ensuring the preservation of due impartiality and fairness. It is a constitutionally defined “referee” that should be above the political game and there is no place for apparatchiks on this Board, such as was the case with Tanya Borg Cardona in January 2016.
Her appointment required political impartiality. Yet she was one of the Deputy Prime Minister’s persons of trust – a political appointee. She had no expertise or experience in broadcast media.
The national television station is the State Broadcaster, and a public service. When a television station claims to speak to and for the nation, the people, and in the public interest, but instead is used as an instrument of propaganda and a mouthpiece for the political party in government it starts becoming alarmingly reminiscent of regimes such as that of North Korea.
Yet TVM’s head of news Reno Bugeja is extremely selective in what he chooses to broadcast and publish, what he chooses to give prominence to, and in what is said and how it is said.
In contrast, Saviour Balzan of MaltaToday, was given two programmes on PBS. His sister Mariella Dimech was also given a programme. All this inevitably raises questions on the independence and impartiality of PBS as well as of Malta Today. And news of a 1 am chat with the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Keith Schembri on the night Caruana Galizia broke the Egrant story suggests a disconcerting intimacy between Schembri and Balzan.
Just as worrying is the leaked FIAU report that Adrian Hillman, when Managing Director of Allied Newspapers, which owns The Times of Malta and The Sunday Times of Malta, received various payments into his British Virgin Islands company from Schembri, between 2010 and 2015, which totalled approximately €650,000.
These are just a few examples of issues that are glaring red flags on the worrying state of health of the Fourth Estate in Malta.
The tagline of The Washington Post website is the ominous sentence – “Democracy dies in darkness”.
Yet, there is hope. The Daphne Project, the idea that journalists stand together and continue the unfinished stories of their fallen colleagues and publish them all around the world allows some optimism and new-found courage. We must stand shoulder to shoulder with them.