A coalition of nine freedom of expression and media freedom organisations, led by ARTICLE 19, has made a submission to the public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia listing concerns as well as recommendations for press freedom reforms.
The organisations highlighted concerns regarding media ownership, SLAPP lawsuits against different journalists and media outlets in Malta, attacks and smear campaigns against independent journalists and a lack of compliance with freedom of information requests that “illustrate a deeply concerning picture of the continuing threats to the safety of journalists in the country”.
They referred to the shortcomings of the police investigation into the assassination of Daphe Caruana Galizia and concerns over political influence on the magisterial inquiry.
In addition to human rights organisation ARTICLE 19, the international NGOs providing recommendations on how to improve press freedom in the country include the Committee to Protect Journalists, Free Press Unlimited, Reporters Without Borders, and the International Press Institute.
Their submission to the public inquiry focused on two priorities: Determining whether any wrongful action or omission by or within any State entity facilitated the assassination or failed to prevent it; and determining whether the State is fulfilling its positive obligation to take preventive operational measures to protect individuals whose lives are at risk from criminal acts, in particular in the case of journalists.
The reforms proposed included: legislation criminalising violence against journalists, condemnation of past and future attacks on journalists, improving the Freedom of Information Act, measures to address online harassment, the abolishment of posthumous libel suits, addressing vexatious libel suits, and establishing an Independent Media Authority which would allow for the full inclusion of all journalists including those considered freelance or independent, as well as replacing the existing Broadcasting Authority.
The international experts also proposed the establishment of a journalist safety committee composed of government officials, civil society, the security services and the international community, whose role it will be to assess, contribute and evaluate media reforms in Malta, with clear independence, established timeframes and the capacity to make recommendations.
They also recommended setting up a full and independent study into the delivery of COVID-19 State aid provided to media outlets and organisations. Such a study should include recommendations for any potential remedial action.
The government should relinquish control over the issuing of press cards, whether directly or indirectly through any State Authority and institute the practice of recognising national and international press cards issued by media, journalists’ organisations and free press NGOs.
The nine organisations also recommended the establishment of a media literacy board, a study into self-censorship by journalists, and an inter-ministerial structure designed to respond to alerts published on the Council of Europe Journalist Safety Platform.
The recommendations are based on a list of concerns that include several SLAPP attacks against media outlets in Malta.
“Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination contributed to an already hostile environment for independent journalism in Malta, where most of the media are directly owned and controlled by political parties. Investigative reporting is lacking, with only a handful of journalists continuing to pursue the kind of public interest investigative reporting that Caruana Galizia had carried out,” the organisations said in their submission to the public inquiry.
The experts added that the total lack of accountability faced by those high level officials whose corruption Caruana Galizia was investigating at the time of her death, in particular in relation to the Electrogas, 17 Black and other Panama Papers related investigations, “continues to contribute to a context of impunity and unsafe environment for journalists investigating corruption”.
“We are deeply concerned that those journalists continuing her investigations face serious pressure, harassment and acts of reprisal.”
The most recent annual Media Pluralism Monitor report, published by the Centre for Press and Media Pluralism and Media Freedom, cited a lack of political independence of the media as the worst risk identified for Malta.
They referred to the State broadcast media, which they said is so heavily biased towards the government that major corruption stories often go unreported.
“In addition to owning its own Party-controlled news outlets, the government also uses political advertising as a way to channel money to media outlets that have links to, or are supportive of, the ruling Labour Party.”
They pointed out that there is no legal framework for, or transparency in, the allocation of State advertising in Malta. “Malta’s independent media are increasingly dependent on government-funded advertising, a pathway to government control of information and an emphasis on pro-government agendas.”
Maltese journalists are facing defamation suits outside Malta and the threat of more such suits are of growing concern. This is especially significant when considering the activities of organised crime in Malta, the organisations said.
“In the case of Henley and Partners, it is a matter of record that all such threats were agreed with the Government of Malta, including the former prime minister.” They referred to the SLAPP threat by Henley and Partners against The Shift only three weeks after its launch.
The Shift was the only news outlet among those who received threats to publish the letter in full while refusing to remove the article. “It later emerged that most of the independent news outlets in Malta had already complied after receiving similar threats, effectively altering the public record without informing citizens.”
Following their list of concerns on press freedom in the country, the organisations said the Maltese authorities should immediately take demonstrable steps to fully implement the Council of Europe’s ‘Recommendation (2016) of the Committee of Ministers to Member States on the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists and other Media Actors’, to protect journalists and create an enabling environment for critical, independent journalism in Malta.
The public inquiry
Saying they had campaigned for two years for the public inquiry to be launched in line with Malta’s international obligations, the organisations said: “Substantial progress by the Board of Inquiry has been made despite limited cooperation from the Maltese government”.
They said witnesses representing government and State entities had to be summoned to testify and many withheld information relevant to the public inquiry’s mission.
“We remain concerned at attempts by Prime Minister Roberta Abela’s government’s attempts to undermine the independence of the Board of Inquiry by imposing time limits on the inquiry. The Prime Minister has also expressed ‘reservations about the way in which the inquiry is failing to keep to the terms of reference given to it’. Glenn Bedingfield, a governing Labour party MP and person of interest to the inquiry, has expressed outrageous and unfounded criticism of the inquiry, accusing its members of deliberately delaying its conclusion in order to make more money from it.”
The organisations said the public inquiry presents a crucial mechanism in the fight for truth and justice for the assassination of Caruana Galizia and the prevention of further attacks on journalists in Malta, “especially those who continue her investigations at great risk”.
“It is essential that the inquiry is protected from any political inference. If its mandate is completed and recommendations implemented it has the potential to form an important precedent for achieving justice for journalists globally. Its work is vital to the non-repetition of attacks against journalists and is essential for ensuring reparations for the victim, her family and Maltese society,” the organisations said.
You can read the full submission here.