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Spinning away an award

Had Caroline Muscat won the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Award for Independence in 2012, instead of this month, one Malta headline could have blared, ‘Anti-Gonzi blogger wins RSF Award’. For she did used to write a blog that focussed mainly on the then administration’s shortcomings, sometimes using the rhetorical device of addressing the Prime Minister directly.

And perhaps the text of that hypothetical local article could have included a reference to her radical background – code for “extremist” – as Greenpeace activist, scaling down offending pollutant chimneys in Malta and organising political campaigns in, say, Turkey.

It’s an interesting thought experiment to wonder what we’d have thought in that case. Yes, it’s highly improbable that such an award would ever have been considered for any Maltese media house then – the award is given for journalistic virtue in an environment that is powerfully hostile to investigative journalism, and I’ve yet to encounter the Gonzi years described in those terms. But, for the sake of argument, suppose the award had been given to Muscat in 2012, what would we have made of references to her former blogging and Greenpeace activism?

I think we’d have had an easier time seeing that journalistic independence means whether your investigative stories are free from fear or favour. Independence doesn’t mean not having political sympathies; otherwise, that would mean that leading world newspapers, like The Guardian and The New York Times, could never urge a vote for particular candidates or political parties (yet they do). To be independent is to submit those in power, whoever they are, to scrutiny. It’s independence from their power that’s at stake.

Journalistic independence is defined by what a journalist does. The RSF awards are for those who served the interests of journalism, not other interests. Journalistic independence is displayed by breaking stories of importance. The corruption of journalism is displayed when it can be shown that a story was fabricated (as opposed to a journalist unwittingly getting a story wrong) or, alternatively, that a story was suppressed to help powerful people evade scrutiny.

Why the need to repeat the obvious? Because the moment the news of Muscat’s award was announced, government spinners were on social media redefining what the award means and how we should react. But since they did offer arguments, and you are likely to come across them, let’s consider them on their merits.

The first we’ve already partly dealt with. Muscat can’t be independent because she was the Nationalist Party’s campaign manager in the 2017 general election. Isn’t the issue whether The Shift’s investigations are corrupt or fabrications?

The Shift’s investigations have often required collaboration with international journalists, given the international network of those under scrutiny. RSF should be able to tell if that collaboration is fake or motivated by corrupt intent.

There is also an amusing aspect to this argument. It suggests that RSF, a global network of investigative journalists and media experts, is incapable of an elementary background investigation into one of its own nominees.

In which case, the argument shouldn’t be that Muscat doesn’t deserve the prize. It should be that the prize isn’t worth having. Yet the prize clearly is. The awards ceremony was covered by the BBC, Deutsche Welle, the French TV5 Monde and Al Jazeera, among others.

The argument that Caroline Muscat is a fake journalist leads to the logical conclusion that RSF, the BBC and other global outlets don’t know their stuff. It’s not a surprising conclusion coming from the spin machine that once claimed international journalists’ fuss about the Panama Gang was driven by their own nationalistic agenda.

What about the other objections to Muscat’s award? One is that the award constitutes an insult to other media organisations in Malta. Why? Because RSF said that most media outlets in Malta are subservient to the government.

Most doesn’t mean all. But if you count the number of media outlets, including those owned by political parties and the State, then the RSF claim is accurate.

No one has claimed a monopoly of independence for The Shift. Some of the Shift investigations have parallels in those by other news organisations — say, the Allied Newspapers investigations into the Vital Global Healthcare deal. (Interestingly, Allied newspapers have declared that they have been put under pressure by the withholding of government advertising.)

Journalistic independence and excellence for individuals is made easier the more members of the profession practise it. It’s not a zero-sum game; on the contrary. The suggestion that Muscat’s award is an insult to all other media organisations looks like an attempt to divide and rule.

One final objection is that the award is self-contradictory. If Muscat manages to publish her reports, how can that mean that she’s doing that in hostile circumstances?

Well, if being able to publish reports means an award doesn’t make sense, then the RSF Awards don’t make sense. Another nominee for the Independence Award was Pakistan’s oldest daily newspaper. As that fact suggests, it’s been publishing for a long time – so does that mean its nomination was unnecessary?

Of course not. The award recognises perseverance in the face of massive pressure. You know, like being spoken of on social media as a new “witch” who perhaps could do with the same treatment meted to Daphne Caruana Galizia.

How could anyone who misses that be taken at his word? If RSF feels vindicated after seeing the trolls’ reaction, you can understand why.

The Shift founder praised for ‘picking up the torch of scrutiny and free journalism in Malta’

‘When a journalist dies, a whole chunk of democracy dies’ – Sandro Ruotolo