‘Malta is not living up to its obligation to guarantee freedom of expression’

International press freedom organisations have urged the Maltese government to enhance efforts to guarantee freedom of information in accordance with international standards following a visit to Malta in which they met with the authorities, civil society activists and journalists.

Presenting the preliminary findings at the end of their visit, the international organisations said they were “deeply concerned” that Malta, “a democracy and member of the European Union and the Council of Europe, is not living up to its obligations to guarantee and safeguard freedom of expression as required by the European Convention on Human Rights”.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), PEN International, the European Federation of Journalists, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) and the International Press Institute (IPI) said they were concerned that an apparent lack of progress in the investigation into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia was having a chilling effect on public interest investigative reporting.

“There has been no indication from top government officials that any additional progress has been made towards identifying those who ordered the assassination.”

“The government did not indicate any urgency toward completing the investigation. Indeed, officials generally expressed satisfaction with the investigation so far – a jarring sentiment given the apparent lack of advancement,” they said during a press conference on Wednesday.

Government officials generally expressed satisfaction with the investigation so far – a jarring sentiment given the apparent lack of advancement

The delegation asked Prime Minister whether he, the Minister of Justice, or other cabinet officials had been interviewed as part of the investigation, to which they replied they had not.

The international organisations supported the family’s call for a public inquiry, yet despite the failures in the ongoing investigation the Prime Minister refused.

They drew attention to online harassment and trolling, noting the investigation by The Shift News in exposing secret pro-government online groups coordinating attacks on journalists and critics of the government.

“One investigation of six pro-government sites found that several high-level officials were members of these groups, failed to condemn attacks on journalists in closed discussions, and revealed fake accounts that were used to harass individual journalists and counteract journalistic reporting,” the delegation noted in its findings.

The NGOs also raised concerns about the repeated destruction of the protest memorial to Caruana Galizia in front of the Great Siege monument. “It is of particular concern that public officials continue to publicly denigrate Caruana Galizia’s legacy. The vilification campaigns by authorities, including by members of the Office of the Prime Minister and the Chair of Valletta 2018, against Caruana Galizia, both before and after her death are deeply disturbing.”

Members of the delegation laid flowers at the wall surrounding the monument placed there by the government to block public access to it. They did so again during the protest to mark the anniversary of the journalist’s assassination, with Pen International’s director Carles Torner saying “We tell the government don’t you dare remove the memorial we place tonight”.

It was the first time since the goverment blocked off the monument in September that government workers did not clear every single flower, candle and message overnight.

The banner, candles and flowers placed at the Great Siege monument blocked off by the government were still there so far this morning.

They noted the challenges to journalism in Malta, including the targeting of independent journalists in Malta in parallel with the “preferential and politicised allocation of government advertising subsidies to media outlets with links to, or supportive of, the ruling party”.

Defamation lawsuits and SLAPP threats, they noted, were having a chilling effect on the media. The international organisations also noted the Prime Minister’s lack of availability for interviews and scrutiny from the press, saying that press conferences and scripted answers were no replacement.

Recommendations to the Maltese authorities:

  • Ensure a full and comprehensive investigation into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia;
  • Establish without delay a public inquiry into whether Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination could have been prevented, and to learn lessons for the future. The public inquiry should have comprehensive and transparent terms of reference; ensure meaningful involvement of the deceased’s family; ensure the protection of sources; and include public hearings;
  • Fulfill the commitment made during the meeting with the international delegation to implement the forthcoming recommendations of the Venice Commission;
  • Guarantee full, regular access and interviews to the independent media;
  • Ensure a safe and enabling environment for freedom of assembly and the right to protest, in particular at the site of the protest memorial at the Great Siege Monument in front of the Courts of Justice, to Daphne Caruana Galizia until such time as full justice in her case has been achieved;
  • Introduce legislation to transfer the burden of proof in defamation cases where there is a legitimate public interest from the defendant to the claimant;
  • Prohibit the passing of future liabilities to heirs or successors in defamation cases;
  • Public officials should be subject to a higher standard of scrutiny and refrain from taking punitive and retaliatory action against journalists and media outlets, including online; and
  • Enhance efforts to guarantee freedom of information in accordance with international standards.
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