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Free Speech: Be part of the solution

The incumbent government would have you believe that Malta is unsurpassed in its level of tolerance for freedom of speech and expression.Yet, beyond the veil of disinformation by the government’s propaganda machine, the truth is something else.

Malta is a place where an investigative journalist was murdered, where State media deals in lies, and where the voices of those who dare to go against the grain are silenced in a myriad of ways. From government-approved SLAPP suits, spurious local libel suits designed to financially cripple journalists, and the regular cyber attacks against independent news sites followed by no investigation from the authorities – the situation is truly desperate.

We live in a country, and sadly a world, where the rights and lives of journalists are being infringed with greater frequency every day. Jamal Khashoggi, Jan Kuciak , Viktoria Marinova, Daphne Caruana Galizia- almost 800 journalists have been murdered in the last 10 years and thousands more have been imprisoned at the hands of authoritarian regimes and autocratic leaders.

So how can we combat this worrying trend? Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Justice Minister Owen Bonnici seem to think that chirping “freedom of expression” at the cameras while simultaneously suing a dead woman is enough to fix the problem.

Here is The Shift News guide for the Prime Minister to truly protect journalists and genuinely uphold the rights of freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

Recognise the problem

First of all, dear Joseph, you need to recognise the fact that there is a problem. Instead of accusing international watchdogs and organisations of being jealous of Malta or fabricating lies to harm the country’s reputation, perhaps you could pay some attention to what is being said.

IFEX, Reporters Without Borders, PEN International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists and the International Press Institute, are among the leading international press freedom organisations calling for a public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination, as well as calling you out on your approval of the use of SLAPP suits on Maltese journalists.

Forget, just for a moment, the traditional bipartisan defence mechanisms that you have – these organisations have nothing personal against you politically, nor are they interested in usurping you from your throne due to political reasons. No matter how hard you try to convince your supporters of that, in reality these organisations just want you to do what is right.

Sort out the media law

Last year you shot down a proposal to amend the media law to protect Maltese journalists from SLAPP law suits. Your Justice Minister said that doing so would be in breach of EU law, but then the EU hit back and said that this was unequivocally wrong

You, as the government have a duty to protect your citizens and those that live and work within your jurisdiction. Even if you don’t like what these journalists are writing; if you have nothing to hide, you should have nothing to fear. Instead have chosen to give the green light to third parties to sue from abroad, threatening financial ruin until the article or allegation is withdrawn.  It is your duty to protect every Maltese person, not just the ones that toe your line.

Choose your company wisely

Over the last few years, we have seen your government get increasingly chummy with dictators, authoritarian regimes, and jurisdictions that are guilty of atrocious crimes against freedom. Are you swapping notes? Or are you giving their behaviour a vote of confidence?

The President spending time with Erdogan, your increasingly close relationship with the ruling family of Azerbaijan, friendly trips to Montenegro, trips to Dubai – the list goes on. Instead of smiling for photo opportunities and speaking sweet nothings in an attempt at diplomacy, why not publicly condemn the murder, persecution, harassment, arrest and imprisonment of quite literally hundreds of journalists under these countries’ watch?

As the Prime Minister of an EU State where commitment to freedom of expression and speech is a requirement of membership, you really should be leading by example and not appearing to support those that do the opposite. You almost seem intent at justifying criticism of your abhorrence to anything EU, confirming suspicions that you never let go of your anti-EU days and just keeping up appearances hoping Egrant did not rob you of your next post in Brussels.

Be a bit more honest

Come on, we all know that Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri were up to no good. We know it, you know it, they know it, everyone knows it. Isn’t it about time we drew a line under this whole mess, requested their resignations, and consigned this dark chapter in Maltese politics to the history books?

Not only do you support their highly questionable and morally destitute behaviour, but you support the way that they abuse and harass journalists who try to delve deeper. Spurious law suits, SLAPP suits, coordinated campaigns of hate in Facebook groups that you were a member of until forced to leave.

Are you really going to let these attacks on freedom of speech slide? While you may be enjoying levels of unprecedented popularity with your followers at the moment, history will not remember you so kindly no matter how many millions of taxpayers’ money you are investing in managing your reputation.

Recognise that attacks on journalists are legal issues

The United Nations states that members are required to carry out thorough and impartial investigations after a journalist is murdered, and that is yet to happen for Daphne Caruana Galizia. You may have arrested three hit men, but isn’t it a bit strange that your police haven’t interviewed a single politician in your Party that she exposed?

You should also pay more attention to threats of violence and harassment that are made against journalists, even if you don’t like them. At the moment, most reports result in little action and those who abuse journalists – somehow parroting your Party’s divisive lines – thrive in a culture of State approved impunity.

Speak up

Support journalists and activists, even if they don’t like you. Support those who want to protest. Support those who want to lay flowers and candles to call for justice for a slain woman. These is their right and you, as the Head of State, needs to stand up and speak up in support of these rights.

Right now, your silence speaks volumes. You laugh off serious concerns raised by the EU, EC, and independent international professional organisations, and you sweep under the carpet inconvenient news or reports. You lack of support for these rights – except for those you are keen to defend for propping you up – is a threat to the EU’s fundamental values. You don’t care? We do, and Europe does.

Change your methods

Governments across the world are systematically grabbing power and capturing institutions to further solidify their grip. The police, the judiciary, big business, the press – all of these supposedly independent entitles are gradually becoming more and more servile to autocratic leaders.

Turkey, the US, Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan – you fit right in.  Those who disagree with the government are branded as traitors and enemies, but it is not too late to remove yourself from that sorry line-up.

During a time of increasing darkness, speak out and work towards championing democratic checks and balances, freedom of the press and human rights. You could check out the UN Action Plan on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, or even encourage and support the use of the Council of Europe’s online platform that logs attacks on journalists and press freedom. Yet, you have never even replied to the CoE’s report on the attack on The Shift News.

Your puppets keep disparaging and attempting to discredit this news portal. You may be happy with those who swallow your spin in Malta, but outside of the rock what people see is a constant assault on press freedom.

Democracy and freedom of speech are under threat. The situation is deteriorating and you have played no small part in it.  The question is: do you want to continue being a part of the problem, or the solution?

christian kalin joseph muscat keith schembri

Henley & Partners spent up to €300,000 on lobbying the EU last year

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