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Health Ministry wants apology from journalist or no further replies given

Incident is symptomatic of the government’s approach to the press, where you either toe the line or you get excluded.

Auberge_de_Castille
The Office of the Prime Minister, Auberge de Castille, Valletta.

A journalist who wanted to request an interview with a scientist was appalled by the aggressive email he received following numerous attempts to get a reply from a communications aide to the Health Minister.

Christoph Schwaiger posted the reply he received from the Health Ministry on social media. It read:  The Ministry “does not collaborate with journalists who publicly try to ridicule our staff for unfounded reasons.”

Schwaiger was left dumbfounded as he is excluded from doing his job – asking questions on government decisions and actions – unless he sends an apology.

The journalist had first made contact with Fearne’s communications aide on the phone regarding a group of migrants in July. As happens on dozens of occasions when journalists approach a Ministry for a reply, he was told to send questions by email.

In August, the journalist sent the Health Ministry an email requesting to interview a scientist. The bizarre reply was received on his third attempt.

“I take this opportunity to suggest that you excuse yourself, privately and publicly, with my colleague Roberta…” the communications aide at the Ministry said in an email seen by The Shift.

The “ridicule” the communications aide referred to was nothing more than a legitimate criticism of the Ministry’s failure to answer the journalist’s questions.

Schwaiger had said on social media that the Ministry spokesperson had repeatedly refused to answer his questions, “insisted on written questions and hung up on me.”

Calling out the government’s lack of reply to questions from journalists is enough to warrant exclusion.

Speaking to The Shift, Schwaiger pointed out the behaviour was symptomatic of the government’s approach to journalists and their right to demand answers.

“If they don’t answer my questions, how am I supposed to provide an informative service to the public? How would your readers feel if they went into the supermarket, asked an employee a question about a product but got completely ignored? That’s how a number of journalists are treated in Malta when they ask for information.”

He also referred to the fact that Malta’s press freedom ranking has been plummeting year after year since 2017.

“How does the government expect this to change if it blacklists journalists it doesn’t like?” he asked.

It is a regular pattern with the Party in government which refuses to interact with the journalists who ask the tough questions or refuse to accept unjustified restrictions.

The Shift is no stranger to such behaviour.

Besides Freedom of Information requests ignored because compiling the data in the public interest is “too time-consuming” or “documents don’t exist”, emails with questions to different Ministries are regularly ignored. Then, once the article is published, the newsroom receives a Right of Reply demanding the response is published in full and without comment or amendment, and therefore uncontested – a move by the Department of Information (DOI) that The Shift regularly rejects.

The DOI still refuses to include The Shift in its mailing list of government statements and events, which prevents journalists from attending government press conferences or door-stepping any government minister to ask questions. It also puts The Shift at a disadvantage when it does not receive the statements other newsrooms receive, such as the President’s release of the Attorney General’s resignation letter.

The reason the DOI cites is the need for this website to register with the government to receive such information. When the Party in government introduced the new media law, it had tried to impose this as an obligation. It was removed from the law following a battle between the press and government. It is for this reason that The Shift refuses to register.

Recognising it is not a legal imposition, the DOI says registration is “voluntary” – yet it isn’t if the DOI excludes newsrooms that refuse to register. It is an obligation imposed in another form.

Murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia had fought this issue: “There has to be a point to every law, because laws are not enacted for kicks. So the only question we need to ask is ‘Why does the government think news websites should be registered?’

The Shift’s founder Caroline Muscat raised this point before the public inquiry. The DOI insists The Shift is just being difficult, saying all the other newsrooms have registered. “It is no reason to force newsrooms into submission,”  Muscat said.

The Council of Europe report on Malta referred to this problem saying it had “a chilling effect” on journalism, resulting from the arbitrary use of administrative measures such as registration and accreditation schemes in order to harass journalists or to frustrate their ability to contribute effectively to public debate.

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