One of the co-founders of the IGM (journalists’ association) has resigned in protest against the media experts committee set up by the government to implement the recommendations on press freedom stemming from the public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination.
Mario Schiavone said his decision to resign was also due to the government’s “refusal to include a reference to journalism as the fourth pillar of democracy”.
In its recommendations, the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry board had specifically referred to how the constitutional articles relating to freedom of expression should be amended to state that free journalism should be “recognised as one of the pillars of a democratic society and that the State has the obligation to guarantee it and protect it”.
The constitutional amendment proposed by the government does not reflect the same wording. It simply states that the right to freedom of expression shall be guaranteed, defined as including “freedom of any persons to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers”.
Another sub-article amendment adds that “the freedom and pluralism of the media and the importance of the role of journalists shall be respected”.
“The other reason is that I disagreed with the composition of the board. To my understanding, a person who is fighting against journalists being given information because it concerns them directly should not be on such a board,” Schiavone added.
Schiavone’s statement was a thinly-veiled reference to The Shift’s ongoing battle with the Freedom of Information Appeals Tribunal over requests filed on contracts related to Media Today co-owner Saviour Balzan. The Shift managed to crowdfund almost €15,000 at the time of writing in order to fend off 30 appeals by government entities defying an order by the Data Commissioner to provide information on contracts and payments to Balzan.
Schiavone, who has served on the IGM’s executive for 35 years, also stated that he felt it was time to “leave room for others”.
The media experts committee was hastily set up in January with much fanfare, with Prime Minister Robert Abela presenting the committee as the government’s commitment to the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry board’s recommendations for the improvement of press freedom and the strengthening of independent journalism in Malta.
It soon became apparent that in spite of Abela’s posturing the committee was handed a set of draft proposals written up by the government that were simply expected to provide feedback to those proposals within two months. They dealt with only a limited aspect of the recommendations, ignoring serious problems the board of inquiry said should be addressed.
Echoing the concerns voiced by several international press freedom organisations such as Reporters Without Borders and the International Press Institute, Schiavone argued that the media experts committee “does not seem to have the independence to push through its own proposals”.
“I haven’t seen what exactly was proposed. I only read about what was published so far. From what I have read, it seems that the government’s proposals are not strong enough to guarantee independence and safety for all journalists,” he added.
The committee was handed proposed legal amendments for approval on which they were not consulted in advance. None of the members of the committee had directly responded to queries sent by this newsroom except for the committee chair and former judge Michael Mallia, who referred questions to the prime minister.
While the government only briefly described its legislative proposals in a press release, it was Opposition MP Therese Comodini Cachia who actually published the legislation being proposed.
These are the mediocre proposals which @RobertAbela_MT think are enough to provide journalists with an enabling environment and to entrench press freedom in Malta’s constitution. https://t.co/WSgTKS5QOl
— Therese Comodini Cachia (@ComodiniCachia) January 27, 2022
Comodini Cachia denied that the prime minister had consulted with the Opposition, stating that she had access to the documents in question as the lawyer of the Caruana Galizia family.
Overall, Comodini Cachia’s assessment of the laws being proposed was in line with what international organisations had already said, with the MP arguing that the proposals are not enough to create an enabling environment for independent journalism.