It has been all of two weeks since the Council of Europe Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists published its report for the year 2020 and it has been a week since the world celebrated World Press Freedom Day but that doesn’t seem to have stopped Maltese government officials from lashing out at independent newsrooms.
Government whip Glenn Bedingfield took issue with a report published by The Shift that described how Prime Minister Robert Abela’s reply to a parliamentary question (PQ) about expenditure on public relations was misleading and raised a ‘breach of privilege’ complaint, which Speaker Anglu Farrugia did not uphold.
The whip’s complaint in parliament, which was worded to discredit the newsroom was then followed up with a post on social media. The incident was then picked up by Labour Party media outlets. One News’ online portal did a particularly good job of detailing who the author of the article was while ignoring entirely the fact that the complaint had been rejected.
Bedingfield also uploaded the video of his speech to his Facebook page, hours after the Speaker’s ruling, without mentioning that his request was shot down. It was enough to attract the usual commentary.
The Shift has been at the receiving end of attacks by government officials and propagandists before and very often these attacks are accompanied by the singling-out of the newsroom’s editor and founder who also happens to be a woman – a tactic which is as problematic as it is widespread.
Should the reason for this not be immediately obvious, by drawing attention to the author of an article, regardless of gender, there’s a good chance you’re setting them up to be targeted, especially in the digital sphere. However, a number of reports have shown that it is women journalists who are disproportionately affected by online violence.
According to a recent report by UNESCO, 73% of survey respondents identifying as women journalists said they had experienced some form of online violence – a phenomenon that is now considered to be a global problem and bound up with the rise of viral disinformation, digital conspiracy networks and political polarisation.
What’s more, the issue of political polarisation as a catalyst to harass journalists is also being noticed by press freedom organisations such as Article 19 that in their Media Freedom Rapid Response Mission report on Serbia found a number of press freedom issues that may sound very familiar to an audience in Malta.
The report found that the Serbian media landscape is radically divided between independent and pro-government media and that press freedom in the country was further deteriorated by a general attitude by Serbian ruling politicians, especially at the local level, of engaging only with media and journalists who support their political agenda, avoiding criticism from independent journalists.
Public verbal attacks and demonisation of independent media (accused of creating “fake news”, of not being “normal”) were found to be frequent and attacks against independent media and journalists are also perpetrated through a system of smear campaigns either through pro-government tabloids or through online accounts with the result that the public is left anaesthetised by continuous aggressive rhetoric against independent journalists by pro-government media.
There is plenty of research documenting the increasingly intolerant attitudes towards the independent press in Europe and even though Malta has been dealing with polarisation for decades, this latest incident underscores how it continues to occur. This might explain how Malta found itself in the bottom five of RSF’s Press Freedom Index of the EU Balkans region followed by Albania, Macedonia, Hungary, and Serbia, which ranked last.