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How to prove the Press Freedom Index wrong

So, this year’s World Press Freedom Index reports that Malta has registered another vertiginous drop in its rankings, and the Ministry of Justice and Culture retorts that press freedom is actually improving. Let’s take both sides seriously.

There are four main questions to ask the government. They demand real answers rather than a retreat behind talking points.

First, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is concerned about ‘an increasingly hostile environment for independent journalists’. A symptom is the lack of a public inquiry into whether the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia could have been prevented. The government replies that it’s not against an inquiry. But now is not the time. It could interfere with the criminal investigation.

I’m ready to put to one side my puzzlement as to how a public inquiry into political responsibility could interfere with police work on a crime. There still remains this point by RSF: the environment is hostile even now.

There have been Facebook quips that perhaps this website’s editor, Caroline Muscat, needs to be blown up. In addition, online groups, numbering thousands of members, are deployed to harass government critics. They are organised by Labour activists on the public payroll.

My question to the justice ministry: Does it deplore these online groups and their documented activities? In its view, is democracy strengthened by having senior Labour personalities as group members? Does the ministry see any contradiction between wanting to strengthen freedom of speech and the governing party’s online groups?

Second, there is the matter of libel cases. The justice ministry states that the number of civil libel cases against journalists went down greatly in 2018 (19 cases), as compared with 2017 (57) and 2008 (77). Criminal libel has been removed from the books. So has the possibility of multiple lawsuits on the same article.

Given that it’s mainly government ministers and cronies that have recently made use of criminal libel and multiple libel suits, surely the government isn’t boasting that it’s protecting us from itself and its friends?

Hence why it would be good to have the full details on the statistics. The difference between 2017 and 2018 seems mainly to be that Caruana Galizia is gone – half the 2017 libel cases were against her.

What about comparison with 2008? That was an election year. Libel cases often fly wildly during electoral campaigns, as one political party sues the other’s media. Are the 2008 figures distorted by having political parties suing each other, while officially it appears as media organisations being targeted?

For the issue is not just whether the number of libel cases is going down in total. It’s also whether there is an increase in the libel cases against the independent media.

My question to the justice ministry: Will you publish the data you used to inform your press statement? Who was being sued, and who was doing the suing? If you’re right about the improvement, I’ll be happy to say so.

Third, the ministry addressed the issue of financially crippling SLAPP threats against Maltese journalists. It dodged the fact that such threats were issued by government cronies. Instead it said a law making such threats ineffective can only be passed at a European level.

Two questions to the government: The European Commission has contradicted your legal position. Are you ready to offer a detailed legal expert’s opinion as to why the Commission’s legal experts are mistaken?

More importantly, you say that the government is ready to support European-wide legislation against SLAPP actions. Would the Maltese government be ready to initiate the process to get such a law passed – by, say, adopting the measures urged by Aberdeen legal scholar Justin Borg-Barthet?

Fourth, RSF claims that government uses its massive expenditure on advertising to control information and push its own agenda. On Monday, The Times of Malta editorial stated ‘the Labour government is evidently hell-bent to bleed both… [Allied] newspapers to death, including by shrinking its advertising spend even though statistics continue to show both papers are by far the most widely read’.

How does the justice ministry respond? It’s a serious accusation. Can you produce advertising and reading figures to contradict it?

It’s within the government’s means to demonstrate that the World Press Freedom Index has got Malta badly wrong. All it has to do is answer the questions.

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