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International Journalism Festival: Disinformation and censorship in Malta

International Journalism Festival

Disinformation, hate speech, censorship and a host of other challenges facing journalism are among the topics of discussion at the International Journalism Festival that starts on Wednesday in which The Shift News co-founder and editor Caroline Muscat will be participating in two debates on the topics based on research conducted by this news portal.

The 2019 International Journalism Festival, which takes place in Perugia, brings together journalists, students, media agencies and NGOs to discuss the current role of media in society. Also on the agenda are a number of workshops and panels, headed by some of the sector’s leading voices and stakeholders, including Pulitzer-prize winner Matthew Caruana Galizia.

On 4 April, a panel called ‘When a State trolls: strategies for responding to online harassment against journalists’ will discuss State complicity in targeting journalists to intimidate and silence reporting on issues that are critical to the public interest.

Joining Muscat will be prominent Indian investigative journalist Rana Ayyub, and Yavuz Baydar, Editor-in-Chief of Ahval, one of Turkey’s few independent media platforms, as well as Courtney Radsch, advocacy director at US-based press freedom organisation Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Topics for discussion will include the fact that Ayyub was forced to leave the country following an online harassment campaign after she reported on government corruption, and  the coordinated hate campaigns that were organised on pro-government secret Facebook groups in Malta, exposed by The Shift, to target Daphne Caruana Galizia until her assassination.

The same groups were used to target activist Tina Urso after she organised a protest in London at a Henley & Partners event promoting the sale of passports, attended by the Prime Minister, his wife and those closest to them. She woke up the next day to find that her name and ID card had been posted on these groups by a government employee who acts as an administrator in the groups. It was the start of a cycle of hate targeting the activist.

The groups also moved to target journalist Caroline Muscat, with a government employee saying the journalist “deserved a few more bombs”. No action was ever taken on the report.

caroline muscat
A government employee says that after Daphne Caruana Galizia, journalist Caroline Muscat deserves a few bombs too.

The pro-Muscat Labour Facebook groups, with a membership totalling over 60,000, were found to be working in harmony with the government by providing a coordinated machine of disinformation, with deeply harmful and targeted and specific content, including attacks on anti-corruption MEPs, individual activists, and Daphne Caruana Galizia’s family. The Shift News showed how these groups celebrated the journalist’s death.

It was only after The Shift investigation in May 2018 that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, and President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, left these online hate groups. Muscat had to be challenged in Parliament repeatedly before agreeing to leave the groups, yet Labour MPs, government and Party officials remain active members.

The UK parliament final report into disinformation and fake news urged the government to take action to regulate Facebook and social media platforms to ensure companies remove harmful or illegal content. The Maltese government reacted by calling a report slamming fake news by calling it “fake news”.

The online hate groups as those operating in Malta are described in the UK parliamentary report, which took 18 months to compile, as:

Information operations that promote confusion and unrest through information systems, such as social media companies. These firms, in particular Facebook, need to take action against untransparent administrators of groups, which are being used for political campaigns. They also need to impose much more stringent punishment on users who abuse the system”.

The second panel in which The Shift will be participating in the festival held until Sunday is scheduled for 6 April, entitled ‘How to fight back against the censors’. Muscat will be joined by Turkish journalist Kaya Genc, Nigerian freelance journalist Wana Udobang, and moderator Rachael Jolley who is an editor at Index on Censorship.

The panel will discuss how to manage to fight back against attempts to censor reporting, what works and what doesn’t and what is happening in their respective countries. Concerns around freedom of speech, press freedom, and the lack of protection afforded to journalists in Malta has been a hot topic over the last 18 months.

A number of international institutions, including the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, and even the UN have criticised Malta for refusing an independent public inquiry into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, as well as allowing the use of SLAPP law suits on Maltese journalists, on which the Maltese government refused to allow increased protection.

The annual international journalism festival attracts the best in the field and those at the front line of defending the Fourth Estate, including Matthew Caruana Galizia who will debate on Saturday how journalists and all who support them can fight back against threats and violence.

The festival will also host Time magazine’s Person of the Year Filipino journalist Maria Ressa who is persecuted by the government for holding power to account. She has faced 11 legal cases in 14 months, with yet another arrest warrant only yesterday.

The rest of the debates at the world’s largest journalism festival include Julia Angwin who will talk about her hunt for Facebook’s politically incorrect algorithms, Agus Morales who will talk about migrant flows and photojournalist Paul Conroy will remember his war in Syria.

Olivia Ma, director of the Google News Lab, with Carl Woog, head of WhatsApp communication, will also be present, and the death of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, will also be the subject of debate among the world’s journalists.

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