Prognosis for media freedom, journalist safety ‘grim’ without concrete action – UN Special Rapporteur

It is time to translate commitment to ensuring media freedom and journalists’ safety into “concrete action backed by political will”. This is the conclusion of the UN Special Rapporteur on the protection and promotion of the right to freedom of expression, Irene Khan, in her latest report on media freedom and the safety of journalists.

While the government in Malta stalls on any meaningful reforms based on the recommendations made by the board of the public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, several international organisations are working to try and reverse the dangerous decline in media freedom and the safety of journalists that is manifesting itself in almost every region of the world.

In her report, which will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in June, the Special Rapporteur emphasises the societal relevance of independent, free and pluralistic news media and underscores the importance of journalism as a public good.

The Special Rapporteur goes on to discuss the multiple, interconnected challenges for media freedom in the digital age. These include the violent attacks and the legal harassment of journalists with impunity, content manipulation, censorship, gender-based online violence, media capture by authorities, disinformation campaigns, and the erosion of independence, pluralism and viability of the media.

When addressing the matter of impunity for crimes against journalists, the report notes that “high levels of impunity persist in both conflict and non-conflict situations because of the failure of States to comply with international human rights standards. Key factors are weak and corrupt law enforcement and judicial systems and a nexus between political actors, corrupt business leaders, and organized crime, as noted in the report of the public inquiry into the murder of Maltese investigative journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia.”

The raft of civil libel suits against Daphne Caruana Galizia at the time of her assassination is also used in the report as a prime example of the legal harassment of journalists, adding that four years after her assassination, her family is still fighting in the courts to have eight pending cases dismissed. The report notes that Caruana Galizia’s situation prompted a campaign to create effective legislation against these kinds of lawsuits in Europe.

In January, the Maltese government presented press freedom draft legislation to a board of ‘media experts’ appointed by Prime Minister Robert Abela, without consulting the board or the several international press freedom organisations that had offered their expertise. As a result, many local and international press freedom organisations that analysed the draft legislation found the government’s proposals inadequate.

The UN Special Rapporteur also details the key threats to media independence, pluralism and viability outlining that “in a number of countries, including in central and eastern Europe, there is a creeping trend towards state control over public service media through political domination of its governance and pressure on funding, or the weakening or marginalizing of public service media in favour of privately owned media that serves the political or economic interests of those in power” also citing the 2020 Rule of Law Report of the European Commission that highlighted a serious risk of the politicization of media regulatory bodies in Malta, Hungary and Poland.

In the section dedicated to media viability, the report outlines how the collapse of the advertising-based news media business model in recent years has led to a financial crisis, resulting in staff cutbacks and news outlet closures in many countries which was further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and with dire consequences for newsrooms and journalists.

The Rapporteur observes how governments used various measures to address media viability, including state support for journalistic innovation, subsidies, tax relief and public service or community media grants, with mixed results.

She writes that “the dependence of the media on either government or owner subsidies presents a risk to media independence. For instance, various state schemes were set up to support public interest journalism during the financial crisis accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in some cases, those funds were disbursed in such a way as to support only news publishers who were sympathetic to government policies, bypassing those engaged in critical reporting”.

Malta is not immune to the problematic effects of state aid. With the onset of the pandemic in 2020, an analysis by Lovin Malta of the criteria used by the government to allocate state funds to the media concluded that those who benefitted the most were Malta’s public broadcaster TVM and Malta’s party-owned media houses.

Several Freedom of Information (FOI) requests by The Shift on how the funds were allocated were rejected citing commercial sensitivity and during one of the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry hearings, as Chief Justice Emeritus Joseph Said Pullicino learnt about the tiered system the government used to allocate funds, he noted that “this should not be the way funds are administered”.

More recently, the government announced that a €500,000 fund will be used to support the work of printed newspapers and to cushion the impact of a rise in printing and paper prices with no further details as to what criteria would be used to allocate the funds, prompting international press freedom organisation Reporters without Borders to remind the government that state funding should be based on “transparent and objective criteria”.

In her conclusions, the UN Special Rapporteur finds among other things that “independent public interest journalism faces a perfect storm,” and that “states, companies and international organizations must respond urgently and holistically to the complex mesh of physical, legal and digital threats. Without concrete action backed by political will, the prognosis for media freedom and the safety of journalists is grim”.

As part of her recommendations, the Special Rapporteur lists that at the national level, states should develop and implement national action plans, based on human rights obligations, and tailored to online as well as offline issues, to advance the freedom, independence, and pluralism of the media and that governments should consult with civil society and journalists’ organizations in developing, monitoring and assessing their national action plans in a transparent and inclusive way.

Other recommendations include aligning laws and policies with international human rights law, strengthening the rule of law, ending impunity for crimes against journalists, and ensuring independence, pluralism and viability of the media including that governments should “promote the economic viability of independent news media while respecting their professional autonomy and freedom. For example, tax benefits or state advertising revenue can be given to independent news outlets in a fair and transparent manner, and without compromising editorial independence”.

                           
                               
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