Independent media organisations in Malta face threats and financial difficulties, even as the two major political parties operate the largest newsgroups, resulting in pluralism in Malta being placed at “high risk”.
Reviewing Malta’s local media and the challenges journalists face, a country report by the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom, prepared by the European University Institute, has found worrying results in areas such as political independence, media funding and editorial autonomy, among others.
It also draws attention to how, two and a half years after the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, a chilling effect continues among the media in Malta.
The overall results of the report indicate that, despite the general overview, the freedom of the press in Malta remains at “medium risk”, but there are indicators pointing towards “worrying high risk levels”.
The high risk areas also relate to the deficiencies in the effective implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, a lack of transparency in the treatment of whistleblowers, appointment procedures for the Broadcasting Authority and the ongoing developments in the case of the murdered journalist, Caruana Galizia.
Additionally, the report mentions the difficulties journalists encounter when requesting government information. As recently pointed out in an article by The Shift, the government has stock replies at the ready for questions from the media. On most occasions, ignoring emails is the government’s most commonly used tactic.
One newsroom cited in the study reported that 80% of the requests made to the government remain unanswered.
“With continuing investigations by independent journalists into high level corruption, it is safe to say that those in the profession feel threatened and this, in turn, has an impact on the media’s capacity to operate freely in Malta,” the report states.
The report also refers to an investigation carried out by The Shift which shows how those investigative journalists critical of the State are often the subject of hate campaigns run by State-sanctioned online hate groups.
Additionally, ownership of media organisations remains a major issue.
“It is problematic that Party media are not held to standards of fair and unbiased reporting, thus exacerbating the situation of one-sided partisanship, with damaging effects on the wider Maltese media landscape,” according to the report.
The fact that there is no law that makes government office incompatible with media ownership and with political parties, including those in government, and that those in government are expressly permitted to own, control or be editorially responsible for nationwide television and radio services, under certain conditions, is worrying.
“Furthermore,” notes the report, “the ex-Prime Minister’s (Joseph Muscat) Chief of Staff, Keith Schembri, had commercial outlets (Kasco Group of Companies) that supplied local media houses with, for example, newsprint. As reported by Caruana Galizia in 2017, Schembri also had a business relationship with the ex-Times of Malta General Manager, Adrian Hillman, who resigned from his post following the revelations”.
Despite the shock following Caruana Galizia’s assassination, a number of media outlets have “since risen to the occasion and produced some sterling work.
The report states: “It is also worth noting that, just like Caruana Galizia, independent media platforms, including The Shift News, Times of Malta, The Malta Independent and political blogger Manuel Delia, are still being served with Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation (SLAPP) actions lodged in third countries,” it was written.
Another worrying factor mentioned in the report is the lack of media representation and media access for minorities residing in Malta. In fact, the lack of access to the media by minorities is listed as a maximum high risk factor.
“There are no legally recognised minorities in Malta. Subsequently, there are no specific provisions relating to access to airtime for such groups. However, one cannot ignore the fact that there are minorities in Malta and, consequently, their lack of visibility on local media is not conducive to promoting acceptance and integration,” the report noted.
Another high risk factor is the online platforms’ concentration and enforcement of competition. The study additionally reports that there is a lack of data, with regards to advertising and audience concentration, and no specific regulation in the market.
Further, media organisations have reported a decrease in revenue, and there is no official data documenting the employment of journalists in the local media sector.
It also mentions how, despite having the IGM listing commission-based articles as a breach of ethics, it is common knowledge that particular entities apply pressure on newsrooms, threatening to cancel advertising.
“There are, however, a number of independent media outlets who have very strict procedures which they implement with commitment, since they value credibility over loss of income,” the report added.
The report also mentions how independent media newsrooms, such as The Shift, Times of Malta, Newsbook and Lovin Malta, make a concerted effort to have gender-balanced participation, but female participation in current affairs programmes remains low.
“The visual is essentially reinforcing the notion that ‘serious’ debate is predominantly the remit of men, and that women participating in this arena are the exception, unless the topic under discussion is directly related to ‘women’s issues’
“The level of misogyny online is evident, as seen in coordinated Facebook hate groups, as reported by The Shift News. Daphne Caruana Galizia, herself, was subject to decades of a strategic hate campaign of dehumanisation, leading up to her murder. This has been extended to any criticism levelled towards the government, as well as the leader of the Opposition,” according to the report.
The country report for the study was compiled and written by Louiselle Vassallo, together with a number of experts in the field.