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Keep an eye on fake news

To evaluate Robert Abela’s first week as Prime Minister, you need to keep in mind the following question. Be warned: At first it will sound like a stale jibe, but it has everything to do with real hard decisions that Abela will need to take.

Why is it that, in the last three years, Maltese journalists have been sweeping to new international heights while Joseph Muscat only managed to win a Golden Globe for corruption?

It’s not just the multiple posthumous honours for Daphne Caruana Galizia. Or the joint Pulitzer for her son Matthew, which she lived to see, or the UK award for Paul, which she didn’t. The list is not even completed by this website’s editor winning the Press Freedom Award for Independence given by Reporters Without Borders. It’s also about other Maltese media organisations, which have collaborated on international investigation projects and taken the lead in investigating one or another of the scandals surrounding Muscat’s Castille.

None of this has the least to do with delicious irony. It has everything to do with the international state of politics and crime.

Thanks to big data analysis as well as surveillance and tracking technologies, we should be entering a golden age of crime fighting and journalistic investigations. And indeed we are. The reason why Index on Censorship can find so many threats against the free press, and why the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists can pay tribute to so many murdered journalists, is precisely because so many journalists have been successful at uncovering serious crime.

For organised crime, there are essentially three possible responses to this threat. One, they can launch vexatious but exhausting and bankrupting libel suits (SLAPP) against media houses – effectively forcing them to self-censor or pick their battles very, very carefully. Two, they can capture the State – to cover up both their crimes and, if necessary, their murders. Three, they can counter journalists with fake news – both to destroy journalists’ reputation and to sow public doubt about what’s really true.

In Malta, we have seen all three strategies used. First, journalists have been threatened with SLAPP actions, with either the explicit approval or the inaction of the Muscat government.

Second, what has emerged about the Caruana Galizia assassination is enough to show the extent to which the State was captured. The reason why there has been so much collaboration between some Maltese media organisations and international journalistic projects is not simply because international help is needed to crack the Maltese cases. It’s also because Maltese journalists can throw light on bigger cases of cross-border crime. Malta has become a conduit for international corruption and money-laundering.

Third, the Maltese State has been a leading local producer of fake news. Its department of information, ministries and broadcaster tend to take the rap for propaganda; that is, hyperbole that is neither balanced nor fair, but not quite fake, either. Yet it has become also a purveyor of fake news.

This week alone, the Shift’s revelations about the Streamcast scam showed how Nexia BT was involved in yet another scam funded by taxpayers. Beyond the money, however, the investigation showed how State-provided information was involved.

TVM described Streamcast as an international major player when IT experts in India hadn’t heard of it. The then Energy Minister, Joe Mizzi, informed Parliament that he had visited Streamcast’s India data centres (plural) in May 2018 – except that was a full two months before the laying of the foundation stone of the very first data centre.

So, back now to Robert Abela’s first week at the office. Has he shown a proportionate appreciation of the scale of the challenge to restore Malta’s international reputation, including for both good governance and respect for press freedom?

He has been very deft in beginning to address the issues. The candles and messages at the Great Siege memorial can stay. Apart from Edward Scicluna, all ministers involved in cases that could put them in legal peril have been either left out of the Cabinet or moved sideways. The Police Commissioner was nudged into resigning. A Cabinet Committee on governance has been set up with the brief to propose reforms in line with the recommendations by the Venice Commission and the Group of States Against Corruption.

That’s not a bad week’s work. But while it sends important, encouraging signals about reforms to strengthen the separation of powers and freedom of expression, we still can’t tell if the Abela government will continue its predecessor’s trafficking in fake news.

It’s not a peripheral issue. There’s dim hope for good governance and press freedom if fake news continues to be an instrument of State power.

press freedom SLAPP

‘Push back against those who abuse the law to silence the media’ – Index on Censorship

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