Free access to information is considered to be the backbone of democracies, so much so that it is enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. But, to paraphrase Einstein, information alone isn’t knowledge. Hence why democracies require reliable journalism to gather and analyse facts, subsequently informing and educating the public.
But there is a duopoly on the information flow in Malta. At least this is so in broadcasting, where 98% of all local TV stations reach comes from stations that are either owned or controlled by either the Government or political parties.
Around a quarter of all programs watched are news and debate. With such a dismal backdrop of unfair ownership, propaganda, in a more subtle, unsensational sense, is almost inevitable.
In the EU, partisan ownership is generally unheard of, bar the exceptional case of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. Even then, the extent of his media influence may have made him inextricable from Italian politics.
If Malta is to be considered a democratic country, free debate is a requisite. But this cannot be ensured if there are blatant, yet unchallengeable partisan undercurrents. Television has been consistently more trusted than not in Malta. Ironically, people are three times more likely to distrust the political parties that own the TV stations.
This may indicate that television audiences are unaware of the effective impact political ownership has on the media (and thus, on their own opinions), despite party ownership being common knowledge. When analytically consuming the news, questions ought to be raised as to the who owns the source in question, as well as what the purported aim of the reporting might be.
How often this happens in practice is dubious. Media literacy is a concern that must be addressed in this day and age, primarily by the systematic education of younger audiences.
Statistically, Maltese citizens aged 15-24 are the only age group to trust the media by a majority and are the most likely to read the news online. In a climate of increased distrust in institutions, this means that media literacy is as pressing an issue as ever.
In the 2020 Systems of Knowledge syllabus, “The role of the Mass Media and Social Media” is listed as the last item on the ‘Democracy’ module. The entire subject enjoys only a limited number of teaching hours and covers only 15% of the course.
Equipping students with an analytical mindset to critically consume the news is thus placed very low on the teaching agenda, if not omitted entirely. With an influx of information coming from a multitude of media, citizens are increasingly unequipped to process what is fake from what is fact.
There are more examples of fake news weaponised against political adversaries than one can shake a stick at. If a claim is too outrageous to utter in the mainstream press, then it is promoted in hate channels, only to be legitimised later on.
All Maltese leaders have lamented the phenomenon of fake news, citing post-truth politics as a concept whose consequences are toxic. Yet, hypocritically, both parties own television and radio stations, as well as daily and weekly publications.
If Maltese politicians are serious about upholding democracy, the problem of fake news should be addressed, not by regulating journalists, but by scrutinising who they work for. That political parties own platform from which they can disseminate their own narratives is a situation that should be addressed.
To promote a fair debate, the integrity of journalism in the public sphere should be safeguarded. That means by revoking the sheer power that politicians command through ONE and NET, not to mention PBS.
Such control over public opinion allows an unchecked liberalism over what is relevant, and more dangerously, what is factual.