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‘This is not on’, said the Dodger to the fly

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. Image: YouTube / Warwick Economics Summit YouTube.

Dodging journalists. Avoiding interviews. Running away from tough questions. Refusing to be answerable to the people.

You’re right about one thing, Prime Minister.  “This is not on.”

Government officials have a duty to respond to questions from journalists — even the questions they don’t want to be asked.

While Ministers of this government do insist very loudly that ‘we’re willing to answer questions’, their track record when it comes to following through is dismal.

The pattern goes something like this…

Critical news media — including The Shift — are excluded from government press conferences on announcements related to their own investigations. Instead, officials speak to a carefully curated audience made up of ‘sympathetic media’, and then disseminate their preferred version of the ‘crafted press release’ narrative via party-controlled media houses, and through sycophants like Saviour Balzan of Malta Today.

Should anyone question the official narrative or dig deeper to uncover the truth, it’s time to unleash the trolls, a move which is often followed by punitive libel suits meant to silence dissent through intimidation.

Freedom of Information requests are also repeatedly denied on vague grounds like “commercial sensitivity”, roadblocking the people’s legal right to know what this government is doing in their name.

It doesn’t matter whether journalists are seeking information about an MoU on the Vitals hospital deal, or the consultancy contract handed to Alfred Mifsud, the price of the adverts Konrad Mizzi bought from Manchester United, a list of government officials who travel to flog Maltese passports for Henley & Partners, or the elusive documents generated by Konrad Mizzi’s overseas adventures, these are all things the government feels you do not have a right to know.

Even if a news outlet does succeed in obtaining a favourable Freedom of Information ruling, the government drags its heels, refuses to deliver the documents, and even fights the Data Protection Commissioner to keep things under wraps.

At this point you should be asking yourself, “Why do they have so much to hide?”

It’s now reached a point where the only way to ask Joseph Muscat a question is to pin him down in a sidewalk scrum when he tries to sneak out the side door.

Of course, everyone else is trying to doorstep him, too. The typical media scrum includes two to three reporters from Labour Party television and print media, a couple from the PN’s media, and journalists from the Independent, the Times of Malta, and Malta Today.

At best, a journalist has one chance to ask a quick question. If it’s a question Joseph Muscat doesn’t want to answer, he simply has to look at someone more sympathetic and answer theirs instead.

There’s no follow-up, no dialogue, and certainly no possibility of responding to misinformation with further questions. Anyone who persists is shoved aside by the tight circle of bodyguards and personal assistants who swarm around the Prime Minister like pilot fish around a shark.   

Muscat’s latest tactic is outright dismissal, telling a journalist he will “no longer comment” on 17 Black, because “I have answered all questions”.

No, you haven’t. That’s why everyone keeps asking you about it.

They aren’t even pretending to be accountable anymore — let alone transparent or meritocratic.

The rule of law is not about obeying a court order or doing what Joseph Muscat or some other Minister orders you to do. The rule of law is about the checks and balances that are supposed to protect your fundamental rights. An independent media that holds power to account is one of those checks and balances.

I’m not surprised Muscat has completely avoided interviews with foreign journalists after the embarrassment he suffered at the hands of John Sweeney for the BBC. Outsiders aren’t fooled by whataboutism or silly excuses, and they certainly aren’t intimidated by his bluster.

Like the schoolyard bully who uses aggression to conceal weakness, the Prime Minister of Kickbackistan has begun to bark at journalists who ask questions he doesn’t want to answer.

Unfortunately, his arrogant dismissals don’t produce an aura of strength. Instead, this Prime Minister has begun to resemble a frightened man whose public bark is hiding an increasingly toothless bite.

And it’s no wonder, with the stench of shady dealings emanating out of Malta.

Natascha McElhone

A woman among us

‘Journalists must come together, not attack each other’ – OSCE forum