MEP candidates agree that press freedom and the rule of law are serious concerns impacting citizens’ freedoms, except for Labour Party candidates.
Labour Party candidates’ notion of ‘defending Malta’s name’ is to bury criticism of the government, even if this goes against individual freedoms.
Much has been said about declining press freedom in the country, an issue that although brewing for years came to international attention with the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia soon after the last general election. As citizens are preparing to vote in the European Parliament elections on Saturday, The Shift has asked MEP candidates about the priority they give to the issue, requesting also that they list the action taken, in real terms, to sustain their pledge (answers below).
On Saturday, people will also be voting for local councils. Yet, the campaigns have largely focused on the more high-stakes European elections, eclipsing in the process those for the local councils.
The leaders of the two main political Parties have framed the people’s choice in the next election in binary terms. Labour Party (PL) Leader Joseph Muscat has framed this as a contest between two political leaders, while Nationalist Party (PN) Leader Adrian Delia has said a vote for Labour is a vote for abortion.
Neither one is true.
In that sense, the Opposition Leader was right when saying in the final debate of the electoral campaign that “these elections are not what we say they are. They are an election to elect MEPs and local councillors”.
These narratives have no basis in reality. This has to be said bluntly, because so much is at stake and because citizens deserve the truth. Unsurprisingly, it is the incumbent MEP candidates who have shown the best understanding of how the issues discussed in the European Parliament affect our lives. Freedom of expression is one of them, and a priority in the current context.
The government insists there is no problem even as a number of international institutions are increasingly raising concerns on the rule of law and press freedom in the country. Muscat’s reaction to a scathing report by the Council of Europe’s Special Rapporteur was to cast doubt on his integrity and call him “a friend of the PN” – much the same way he deals with criticism from citizens and journalists exposing scandals by those closest to him in “a culture of impunity” noted by a number of international institutions and watchdogs.
It is perhaps for this reason that the PL campaign has targeted so viciously those PN MEPs who have been the most effective in ensuring scrutiny of Muscat’s actions in protecting those responsible for documented corruption backed by evidence.
One of the PL’s largest Facebook groups used to target citizens, journalists and Opposition candidates revealed in an investigation by The Shift News, has been reactivated in the lead up to the elections, and PL officials spread memes targeting PN MEPs David Casa and Roberta Metsola.
The government’s targeting of individuals, its denials, spin (even outright disinformation) and prevarication inevitably lead to further criticism and scrutiny. This was acknowledged as a serious concern by candidates across political parties. PD Leader and MEP candidate Godfrey Farrugia condemned social media hate groups where “it has become permissible for Labour loyalists to demonise critics of the government”.
Alternattiva Demokratika candidate Carmel Cacopardo said, “the rule of law is under assault”. Arnold Cassola, now running as an independent candidate, has regulary posted his concerns on social media. Another independent candidate, Antoine P. Borg, has made a pledge to the European Federation of Journalists. PD candidate Cami Appelgren had to withdraw from social media in the last week of the election because of serious threats to her life.
None of this was seen as a problem for PL candidates who defended the government’s stand. Are they protecting the interests of Maltese citizens or defending Muscat, Mizzi and Schembri at all costs?
The state of things
The government’s stand was reflected in the answers of all PL MEP candidates who chose to respond. Those who did, sent similar replies parroting the same list of points that the government seems to just recite ad nauseam when faced with criticism. Most, did not even bother sending an answer and this said much more than any answer given.
They included former Labour Party leader Alfred Sant, as well as Josef Caruana who caused a stir following the last general election when he name-dropped individual critical journalists including Caruana Galizia as “traitors standing in the way of Maltese progress” saying “a cleansing process should start” and that they should “disappear”. It does not take a genius to assess where Caruana stands on the liberty of the press.
The former editor of L-Orizzont was given a position at the Prime Minister’s Office following those remarks, and he is now a candidate for the European Parliament where critical policy decisions that affect the lives and work of journalists in Europe are shaped. This is, in itself, a reflection of an approach that is incompatible with European values and the importance given to freedom of expression as a fundamental human right.
Yet, PL candidates all praised the government’s track record on press freedom. They consistently referred to the near immediate arrest of three suspects for Caruana Galizia’s assassination (in a trial that has not yet commenced) and the re-enactment of the Media and Defamation Act, which outlawed some of the tormenting tools such as criminal libel and garnishee orders. Ironically, these were used by PL MPs and government officers against Caruana Galizia. They all said the government was committed to holding a public inquiry, even as it is being denied.
PN candidates expressed concern on the decline of press freedom and an awareness of the main issues facing journalists today, including lawsuits intended to financially cripple journalists (known as SLAPP) and online threats and harassment. David Stellini was the only PN MEP candidate not to send in answers. The incumbents have a solid track record of action taken to defend press freedom.
Candidates from Partit Demokratiku (PD) and Alternattiva Demokratika (AD) stressed the rule of law and the need to ensure press freedom as a priority, as did independent candidates. It is a common theme across all parties and candidates, except those of the PL – there is concern on the rule of law and the restrictions being placed on journalists.
They agree that defending Malta’s interests go hand-in-hand with the fight against corruption and abuse, and that it is the duty of journalists to expose wrongdoing.
Joseph Muscat’s ‘traitors’
Incumbent MEPs Casa, Metsola and Francis Zammit Dimech listed their efforts in the European Parliament to address press freedom issues in the country and the investigation into Caruana Galizia’s assassination.
Casa has paid the price as planted stories in Malta Today attempted to discredit him. Despite the admission that the story was based on material created in the editor’s office, the lie was revived in the Labour Party’s secret online hate groups. Echoing similar nationalistic campaigns in Hungary and Poland, Casa and Metsola have been the main target of a Labour Party campaign branding them as “traitors”.
None of this deters Casa: “The mastermind responsible for the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia must be brought to justice. It is an imperative… We have witnessed the stifling of activists’ calls for justice, the refusal to hold an independent public inquiry and the capture of our institutions”.
He mounted a defence of Maltese media houses threatened with financially-crippling lawsuits from Pilatus Bank and he formed a group of cross-party MEPs to lobby for anti-SLAPP legislation. He has taken a personal interest in cases affecting individual journalists even beyond Europe. His work for the protection of whistleblowers was reflected in the Whistleblower Directive, on which MEP Francis Zammit Dimech was also involved.
He has taken forward the call by Reporters Without Borders for a European Commissioner for press freedom. Casa wrote to all European Commission Presidential candidates seeking a pledge, while telling them the Commission had been “slow and complacent” on crucial press freedom issues.
Together with Metsola, as coordinator of the LIBE committee who was involved in the rule of law delegation, the MEPs ensured that that European Parliament resolutions gave importance to issues related to Caruana Galizia and press freedom. This was work ‘against Malta’s interests’, Labour MEP candidates have charged.
Metsola points out that the rule of law in Europe depends on a free press and lists the benefits to journalists working in the public interest: “We have worked to improve protection given to jouralistic sources, we have passed grounbreaking whistleblower legislation and have pushed for EU legislation against SLAPP lawsuits in the EU – something that will take precedence in the coming legislature. In this legislature, we have also confirmed dedicated EU funds to help investigative journalism around Europe”.
Problem? What problem?
PL candidates claim that the press is “untouched” and operates “without fear” as journalists are given “unfettered access” to government issues. They may have been talking about those sitting at the Party’s media house, but otherwise their stand serves to bury concerns on press freedom to protect the reputation of the Party in government. It does nothing to help Malta.
Their stand ignores the country’s decline in press freedom rankings and independent journalists’ complaints on lack of access to the Prime Minister who has refused interviews with the independent media since the last general election. Major contracts signed are often redacted, or not published at all, and freedom of information requests are more often than not, denied.
Concerns on press freedom were also raised by the Council of Europe’s Special Rapporteur Pierter Omtzigt in the draft assessment. He notes that Freedom of Information requests are regularly obstructed, and that the Whistleblower Act in Malta does not protect those who report to the media.
While PL candidates all said the government was “committed to ensuring justice is served,” in the Caruana Galizia case, the Special Rapporteur notes that “even after her death, there remains an appearance of government hostility towards Ms Caruana Galizia”.
It is true the government has enacted laws that improve the situation on paper, but this is not reflected in reality. The Labour government has considered whistleblowers only as those prepared to blow the whistle on the Opposition or those that fall out of favour. But whistleblowers that report on current abuse or those the government considers inconvenient are not protected and often bullied into silence.
Former FIAU official Jonathan Ferris was fired, threatened with arrest and he fears for his life. Maria Efimova fled to Greece where a Maltese extradition order for her was refused. Atansov Valery, the Malta Gaming Authority (MGA) IT employee who blew the whistle in 2014 in relation to online gaming, was disciplined, fired from his job and is even being sued by the MGA for defamation.
On the other hand, those who exposed wrongdoings “useful” to the government were awarded with millions in contracts.
Libel suits are still used to threaten and silence journalists including SLAPP lawsuits, and the government has refused to provide Maltese journalists with protection against vexatious yet financially crippling lawsuits filed abroad. The Prime Minister is among those who continue to pursue libel cases against Caruana Galizia posthumously.
It’s your choice
Since the Labour Party was elected in 2013, Malta’s press freedom rankings plunged 32 places, 12 places in the last year alone. Its media landscape is described as “increasingly hostile” for independent journalists and serious concerns have been raised over the control the government exerts over television and print media.
These concerns have been echoed by the Council of Europe, the United Nations, the European Parliament, the Venice Commission, GRECO and countless other independent human rights and press freedom organisations.
Yet, to date no one knows who commissioned the murder and according to reports, no politically linked persons have been interrogated in connection with the case. Also, calls for a public inquiry from the family, international legal experts, the European Parliament, the UN, the Council of Europe and the EU, have all been refused.
This does not amount to “no stone left unturned”, a commitment Muscat made following the journalist’s assassination. The Caruana Galizia family has been forced to resort to litigation citing a breach of the ECHR’s right to life, to see that an inquiry is launched.
What you believe largely depends on where you’re standing in the political spectrum and what is important to you. Whom you vote for and what they choose to prioritise and defend will have an impact on your daily life. What is decided by our representatives in Brussels, has to be implemented in Malta.
Remember, press freedom is about defending your right to know and, since democracy relies on well informed citizens, democracy itself.
The analysis was by Caroline Muscat.
Read what each candidate had to say:
Candidates for European Parliament elections were sent this question for an article assessing the priority given to press freedom:
The unsolved murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia has resulted in a serious drop in Malta’s press freedom rankings, as well as substantial criticism from the EU, Council of Europe, European Parliament, United Nations, and many human rights and media freedom watch dogs. What have you done and what will you do if elected to ensure that the mastermind of her assassination is identified and justice is served, as well as to address the various forms of threats to investigative journalists in the country that would enable an improvement in Malta’s press freedom rankings?
Nationalist Party (PN)
“I published the FIAU report on 17 Black and assisted journalists with their investigative work. I drew attention of these facts to international organisations working in relevant fields, and I formed part of a delegation of MEPs investigating the rule of law in Malta. “
“I worked to ensure plenary debates took place, and that both Daphne’s memory and her work received prominence in related resolutions on the rule of law and money laundering. I ensured that the call for a full public inquiry has the backing of the European Parliament.”
“The threat of Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) remains. Disappointingly, the Maltese Government has refused to legislate on this matter, but I have worked tirelessly to place this firmly on the European agenda."
“In terms of legislation, we have worked to improve the protection given to journalistic sources, we have passed groundbreaking whistleblower legislation, and have pushed for legislation to stop SLAPP lawsuits in the EU – something that will take precedence in the coming legislature.”
“I have supported media organisations under threat and refused to meet with those multinational companies threatening Maltese media houses.”
“We have guaranteed the permanent naming of a press room in her honour, the exhibition of a Maltese sculpture in her honour in the European Parliament, and I participated in various European Parliament debates on the assassination and the implications on the rule of law and press freedom that it exposed."
“I also served as the EPP Group Rapporteur on whistleblowers legislation within the Committee responsible for media, and tabled further amendments in the Committee on Legal Affairs to further strengthen the law. “
“If elected, I will work to strengthen press freedom across the EU, especially investigative journalism, not least by pushing for anti-SLAPP legislation and by pushing for further funding in favour of quality journalism."
“In the months that followed, we pushed forward resolutions to protect journalists from SLAPP, we pushed for Commission action and funding to assist investigative journalism, and for concrete measures to quash fake news through systematic controls.”
“I will pursue the agenda we started and have pushed already for the last 19 months, not only to honour her who lost her life defending our rights, but to ensure a working democracy in Malta. You cannot have proper scrutiny of power if journalists are afraid to ask questions or conveniently set aside after speeches.”
1. Change the way the judiciary is appointed - we need a better system in place.
2. Strengthen the Freedom of Information Act - at the moment, when journalists try to use it, it's like pulling teeth, even for the smallest and most non-consequential requests.
3. Strengthen the Whistleblower Act - many a time a journalist is a whistleblower or is protecting one, and there needs to be the appropriate safeguards.”
“I will keep working on the above together with my Party. I have backed the Party that's been fighting for all of this, and then decided to join the race to do even more.”
“I also addressed a group of German parliamentarians from Berlin, and addressed media outlets around the world on the call for justice for Daphne. I have also publicly supported calls by organisations such as Transparency International and Reporters Without Borders for more transparency. If elected in the European Parliament, I will keep up the fight for justice and press freedom and will work with institutions and civil society accordingly."
Labour Party (PL)
“The Maltese press currently have unfettered access to the government, from press conferences to door-stepping opportunities, and operate without fear.”
“The Government has evidently prioritised press freedom since it was elected and is committed to continuing to do so.”
“The new 2018 Media and Defamation Act has widened freedom of journalistic expression. This act has also abolished criminal libel, introduced the concept of the ‘citizen journalist’, the concept of mediation, and introduced various provisions which strengthen freedom of the media and prohibit the multiplicity of libel lawsuits in Malta on the same journalistic report."
“I will make sure that justice prevails and continues unabated, and will duly support the Government's initiatives to launch an independent public inquest into whether the murder could have been prevented in the first place. This can only happen when the current criminal inquiry and all investigations have been concluded.”
“The Partit Laburista upholds freedom of speech - all local media is free to do so.”
“The Maltese press is at present untouched and has unfettered access to government issues - and all operate without free. [sic]”
“Maltese media laws have been updated and new ones enacted. The Whistleblower Protection Act of 2013 was one of the main changes to protecting citizens by law.”
“I am a strong believer in media freedom and I am convinced that the government is committed to taking more actions that will lead to higher press freedom rankings, as it has already done by amending the Criminal Code, abolishing criminal libel and by enacting the Whistleblower Protection Act and the new Media and Defamation Act."
Alex Agius Saliba
Democratic Party (PD)
“I condemn the entire bipartisan mentality whereby it has become permissible for Labour loyalists to demonise critics of the government, especially in the context of social media hate groups.”
“The assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia has clearly taken place in an atmosphere of impunity, and it is therefore necessary for a full independent investigation into the circumstances to finally shed light on the fact that we have a broken and sick system.”
“Partit Demokratiku's vision is for a Malta where journalists need never fear for their safety, where journalists and citizens alike can speak their minds freely without being punished socially, professionally or physically."
“Malta as an EU Member State needs to uphold its standards when it comes to freedom of speech, it's a big part of European values and I will do my utmost to fight for it to be part also of Maltese values. “
“I also call for a more serious approach to hate speech and threats towards citizens and journalists.”
“I myself have many times been a victim of such attacks and attempts to silence me.”
“As an MEP as well as a public figure, I would try to bring pressure, both local and international, to force the government and local authorities to conclude the investigation into Daphne's murder, push through legislation in the European Parliament to make SLAPP suits illegal in Europe, and create a fund that would help fight them. We must make journalists here in Malta feel absolutely free and safe to investigate, question and protect the public's interest, no matter how awkward, no matter how uncomfortable it may make public figures feel, including myself."
“In the short term, if elected, I would certainly pressure Europol and the local police to ensure an investigation into Daphne Caruana Galizia's assassination is concluded as soon as possible.”
“If elected, I would also pressure the Commission to better monitor and influence legal abuses in Member States through PQs, etc.”
Democratic Alternative (AD)
“The EU needs a binding and comprehensive mechanism to regularly monitor the state of democracy, the right of opposition forces to be heard, the rule of law, free press, fundamental rights and a judiciary and institutions which are really independent in all EU Member States. It also needs a system of political dialogue and swift intervention and support measures for independent media, civil society and, if necessary, adequate sanctions. It needs to provide protection to activists, journalists and whistleblowers who expose hidden information in the public interest. ”
“An elected Maltese Green MEP will form part of the Green Group in the European Parliament, which has time and again defended both press freedom in general as well as individual journalists subject to various forms of threats."
“It is worrying when elected politicians and party officials ignore interview requests, interfere in the work of journalists and/or dismiss news as fake. The role of independent investigative journalists in uncovering corruption cannot be underestimated. These journalists contribute to transparency in democracy and keep the people in power accountable for their actions, words and (empty) promises. This is why I would also push to ensure that no journalist in the EU will be silenced or intimidated through legal mechanisms.”
“As an activist, I will continue my work to challenge the culture of fear and servitude that prevents many people from speaking up. We need to support people who challenge power, norms and the status-quo."
“If and when elected I will add my voice to the Parliament's. We will call for a proper investigation to be held and take whatever actions are at our disposal to hold the government's feet to the fire.”
“I will continue to oppose any threat to our journalists.”
“We must have a proper free media before we can call ourselves democratic, so this is a non-negotiable point. I am saddened by party controlled media and would prefer a situation where we didn't have them. A free pluralistic society would serve the needs of the public in a manner far superior to that which we see today.”
- Alleanza Bidla
- Imperium Europe
- Patriots Movement