If information is carefully processed by media agencies, with the aim to indoctrinate rather than inform, then the thousands of members in the Maltese audience are susceptible to propaganda, even in a 21st century EU member state.
Media literacy should serve as a safeguard against this, but worryingly, there is no attempt at equipping these audiences with the tools to digest the media critically.
Citizens are not being raised to engage critically and constructively in democracy. Rather, they are brought up to pick a side and stick to it, no matter what. If you are a person of means, then you are at liberty to switch sides, for you will be welcomed by either party if you are ready to bolster their election warchests.
The closest thing there is to civic education in Malta is a ‘Democracy’ module from the Systems of Knowledge course, usually completed by students at 17. For a brief overview of the basic idea of democracy, plus some rudimentary understanding of the functioning of government and parliament, the module suffices.
READ MORE: Media not for the many, but for the powerful
But democracy is on the decline worldwide, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. Eight people live in authoritarian regimes for every person that lives in a full democracy. In the US, the density of disinformation throughout the 2016 electoral campaign played a role in downgrading it to a flawed democracy.
If our politicians were truly contemptuous of fake news and post-truth politics, active steps would be taken to diminish their potency in the public debate. Besides the rampant ownership of media production outlets and a direct link to the electorate via social media, there is a worrying lack of information afforded to students on the issue.
Politicians may lambast post-truth politics, but only they stand to gain from it. Because of the sheer uncertainty created in the political sphere, they may elude accountability entirely.
For certainty, legal channels are exercised. If politics was already complex, the legal sphere is mostly inaccessible by the general public, creating more alienation rather than information. Furthermore, the law is no substitute for the democratic doctrine of ministerial political responsibility.
The uncertainty thus left in the political sphere is beneficial only to those who invest time and money into obfuscating it, firstly by neglecting to shoulder responsibility and secondly by spending millions annually to influence public opinion.
A lack of distinction between political parties and the media means that the latter becomes the apparatus of the former, rather than its evaluator. As a result, the perception of what journalism ought to be in Malta is fundamentally flawed.
Investigative journalists’ aim is to seek the truth. They do so by remaining impartial and emotionally detached from the facts so as to seek the account closest to the truth.
Somewhere along the way, impartiality not only became an end in itself, but to be impartial was to appear “balanced”. Any political statement to be passed, whether negative or positive, had to feature both parties, or risk being shot down as “one-sided”.
Unlike ideas or points of view, political parties are institutions; they share no authority over truth such that their statements must be heeded so as to progress closer to the truth. The result is laughable. People would criticise the Gonzi administration for its horrible political strategism, and conclude with “but he did good things, too”, as though it was pertinent to the merits of their opinion.
Similarly, if a case comes to light of graft by an incumbent Labour party minister reference is made to similar cases concerning the Nationalist Party that would have happened almost a decade ago. Rather than impartiality, this inflicts the impossibility for the media to do their job. It allows politicians to elude responsibility for their actions.
To combat a toxic mentality, one by the Maltese politicos, media literacy should be introduced swiftly. Unless this is emphasised upon, the Maltese media will be no more rooted in journalism any more than it is a vehicle for unchecked populism through which politicians exert their influence without inspection.
This is part of a series of articles investigating the state of the media in Malta