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Your right to know, compromised

Malta has fallen another four places in the World Press Freedom Index.

And what a fall it was when you add that to the plummet of 30 places over the previous two years.

Whoosh…. there goes Togo. Whoosh…. was that Mongolia? Malta’s falling too fast to tell. Tunisia, Georgia, Armenia… even Panama passed in a blur.

Thankfully, the Envy of Europe hit a ledge and is now sitting precariously just above Kyrgyzstan.

It’s tough for a European Union country to do worse that this former Soviet republic when it comes to telling the truth in media.

But we’re not done yet. Hold my beer…. Backdown Bobby’s taking the wheel.

At 81, Malta is now firmly in “problematic” territory — almost a euphemism for the whispered concerns about Joseph Muscat that must have made the rounds in Brussels.

Before il-Kink came on the scene, Malta was ranked 45.

This probably doesn’t mean very much to you because 81 is just another number. Rankings are arbitrary — until you think about why it got this way.

The brutal murder of anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia by car bomb — and the conspicuous attempts by the government to avoid uncovering who actually ordered her killing and helped cover it up — is one obvious reason for Malta’s decline.

But it’s far from the only reason.

The other EU country that saw the shocking murder of a journalist — Slovakia — went up in the World Press Freedom rankings rather than down. Their investigation into Jan Kuciak’s murder uncovered disturbingly close links between corrupt politicians and the businessman who commissioned the killing. But Slovakia actually did something about it.

In Malta, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) dragged the government kicking and screaming to its grudging agreement to hold a public inquiry into Caruana Galizia’s death.

And Muscat, Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi only resigned after weeks of angry protests shut the country down.

They’re determined to get to the bottom of something, but it sure doesn’t seem to be the truth.

The World Press Freedom Index on Malta also references “documented instances of denial of access to information or press events, toxic rhetoric by government officials, failure to recognise non-State issued press cards, as well as unlawful detention of press members (including international press) following a press conference in late 2019.”

Robert Abela’s new-but-old ‘continuity’ government has given no indication it intends to change any of this.

Sadly, direct threats from the government and its supporters aren’t even the end of the story.

The largest threat to press freedom in Malta is firmly entrenched, with beneficiaries on both sides of the spectrum.

I’ve heard a lot of excuses for the massive political party control of the media in Malta. But there comes a time when excuses don’t cut any more slack. “He has potential” is only a compliment the first time you hear it.

Malta’s situation is unique in Europe, with the two main political parties owning their own television and radio stations, daily and weekly print media and online news portals and armies. 

This is abnormal. Or rather, it hasn’t been normal in Europe since the Nazi Party gave 1930s Germany Völkischer Beobachter and the USSR published Pravda and Izvestia.

Party-controlled media is a national embarrassment, and a national threat.

When information is filtered through a political party, the stories that come out the other side are not impartial, they’re propaganda. They’re designed to convince you of something, not to inform.

And so, in the world of Party-driven press, Schembri was a victim of a jealous smear campaign, Mizzi’s ‘family planning’ structure in Panama was harmless and naive, and anyone who criticises the government is a traitor to Malta.

If a story’s too harmful to the Party’s interests, it won’t be reported at all.

That’s the biggest press freedom problem in Malta. You have political parties — on both sides of the red-blue divide — filtering the truth and giving you the version they want you to believe.

They do it by owning news media outright, by ‘buying’ media through lucrative advertising contracts and PR campaigns, and by bullying media to kill the stories they don’t want you to read through withheld advertising and punitive libel suits. A journalist’s phone rings like mad when a Minister has been caught out, and it’s not pleasant.

And with so-called independent media outlets led by Saviour Balzan you have to stop and think which hat he’s wearing with all his public relations gigs for the government.

It makes you very easy to control.

You’d think the Institute of Maltese Journalists (IĠM) would be fighting to change this situation. Instead, they brushed it off as unimportant.

The IĠM couldn’t deny the concerns raised by the World Press Freedom Index over undue influence from political and business interests because of the way media in Malta is financed. But they disagreed “with the implication that the majority of Maltese media houses are beholden to political interests.”

It isn’t an implication. It’s a documented fact, and something you’d think the body which is supposed to protect and advocate for journalists would be worried about.

But it’s not surprising.

The chairperson of the IĠM doesn’t even qualify for membership in the organisation he’s supposed to be leading. Yannick Pace isn’t a journalist, but a senior policy officer for the Dutch Embassy. He’s actually working for a foreign government while he should be ensuring that journalists in Malta can hold government accountable.

Like everything in Malta, the IĠM has been coopted by political inbreeding. But hey, as the Delphic Oracle of Facebook said to journalist Tim Sebastian on Conflict Zone, ‘we are a small country’.  How can media houses survive in a ‘micro State’ unless political parties dominate them?

The news media is inbred with political parties just as surely as the public sector is inbred with the private. But it isn’t just about control.

Far from being a source of scandal, conflicts of interest are seen as the best possible way to score easy cash.

The bigger the conflict, the more it seems to interest them.

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Stoking the fire