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Looking back at a year of press freedom attacks in Malta

Paul Caruana Galizia demanding to know the identity of the men detaining the journalists at the Office of the Prime Minister in November, 2019.

2019 has been another year of attacks against press freedom in Malta and the role of the media in democracies has been reported time after time to be under assault.

“More and more journalists are being deliberately murdered in connection with their work in democratic countries, which poses a real challenge for the democracies where these journalists live and work”, RSF (Reporters Without Borders) noted in their annual report of 2019.

Malta, together with the 57 member states, was also urged in July by Harlem Desir, the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe, to “refrain from intimidating, threatening or condoning – and to unequivocally condemn – violence against journalists”.

A report, published in July by Desir, highlights two key issues that freedom of the media and freedom of expression are facing – safety of journalists and challenges to online freedom of expression.

In Malta, two years after Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder, RSF also renewed its call for justice and stressed the need for concrete action to address the decline in press freedom.

The Shift has consistently been reporting the attacks on press freedom in Malta since its start and have listed the reports made to Mapping Media Freedom, a European project that tracks threats, violations and limitations imposed on media professionals, during 2019.

Journalists from national and international media outlets were locked in a room at Castille on 29 November following a six-hour emergency Cabinet meeting held in the early hours of the morning.

Joseph Muscat made a brief announcement and gave journalists limited opportunity to ask questions. Following the press conference, journalists were locked in the room for some time, prevented from leaving by individuals who claimed they were “security services”, but later identified as Labour Party thugs.

Josef Caruana, OPM official, has been reported as threatening media freedom by the European watchdog.

Social media posts by Josef Caruana, an official from the Office of the Prime Minister, were registered in October as threatening press freedom on the European Commission-funded platform monitoring the violations against the press in Europe.

His posts referred to an investigation undertaken by The Shift that highlighted irregularities in the way in which government ministers reported their income and government salaries. The ‘Cover Your Assets’ series found that some Ministers appeared to have under-reported their income and omitted key information that they are required to provide each year.

The report states that an “official in the PM’s office smears The Shift News as ‘fake news’”. The platform categorised the threat as an act of ”intimidation, defamation, trolling/cyberbullying committed by government/State agency/public officials”.

Men are filmed by French M6 TV crew removing flowers and photos at the protest memorial in Valletta.

A French journalist was harassed in September while filming the removal of flowers and candles at the protest memorial to Daphne Caruana Galizia in Valletta. A Maltese man started shouting at the crew, telling journalist Camille Le Pomellec: “Go back to your country, see the problems there”. The man then stood up and approached the camera adding “Go away, because I’ll kill you”.

Konrad Mizzi - Chris Cardona - Edward Scicluna
(From left): Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi, Economy Minister Chris Cardona and Finance Minister Edward Scicluna

Rather than addressing the evidence presented in the report in a court filing on 4 June regarding Vitals Global Health Care, Economy Minister Chris Cardona, Finance Minister Edward Scicluna and Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi chose to attack journalist Caroline Muscat of The Shift who published the findings.

Minister Cardona had said in 2016:  “If you hit us with the sword, we will hit you back with an axe”.

cyber attack

In January, The Shift was targeted by a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack, which essentially involves flooding a website server with traffic from multiple sources until the site crashes. Such attacks are designed to take websites and servers offline at critical times. They are often politically motivated.

The attack started after the publication of the third story in the series this morning, showing how the hidden owners of Vitals Global Healthcare (VGH) funded the €5 million purchase of Technoline and then awarded themselves exclusivity of supply.

BBC Newsnight's John Sweeney
Joseph Muscat being interviewed by former BBC journalist John Sweeney on Newsnight.

Prior to the publication of their book Murder on the Malta Express: Who Killed Daphne Caruana Galizia? in Valletta, journalists Carlo Bonini, John Sweeney and blogger Manuel Delia had sent questions to the Prime Minister, his wife, Michelle Muscat, Economy Minister Chris Cardona, Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi and Muscat’s former chief of staff Keith Schembri.

Instead of answering the questions put by authors, the government asked a law firm to inform journalists that they “reserve all their rights in relation to the publication and repetition of any allegation that is defamatory and untrue”.

Ursula von der Leyen President of the European Commission.

The pressure on the EU to prioritise press freedom continues to increase. In a letter in July to the new President of the European Commission, a coalition of international press freedom organisations stressed the need to “ensure that media freedom, the protection of journalists, and EU citizens’ access to information are top political priorities”.

The letter states special attention should be given to protecting female journalists as well as ensuring access to effective protection and prevention measures from physical, legal, psychological, and digital threats.

Petra Caruana Dingli at The Shift News

Setting the future straight

Freedom of speech top priority for Maltese – Eurobarometer