Robert Abela’s new cabinet was sworn in. Since then, the mobile phone numbers of all ministries’ spokespersons have been withheld. Communication aides are meant to aid communication. Not for Robert Abela.
Their role is now to make it even more arduous for journalists to access government and to obtain any information from the executive branch. Their main objective is to make it impossible for the public to find out anything about its own government except that which government wants known.
The IGM, the journalists’ representative body, raised concerns about the lack of access to government with the OPM’s head of communication, Edward Montebello, who was previously ONE’s head of news. His objective is hardly transparency. What is ingrained into him is secrecy, propaganda and manipulation of the truth.
Montebello refined those skills through years of working at Labour’s propaganda machine. Now he’s wielding those skills as OPM Head of communication to distort the narrative.
After the IGM meeting of 31 May, Montebello promised to look into the matter. Unsurprisingly, he hasn’t. He hasn’t even bothered to answer repeated questions on the issue. And nobody can call him because his mobile number is withheld.
Journalists are unable to perform their duties without appropriate access to government. The insurmountable difficulties they face in trying to get that access was highlighted in a 2020 LIBE report. The situation is not only NOT getting better; it’s getting worse.
The report noted that journalists operate in a culture of intimidation and threats. Journalists “stressed the general climate of hate, intimidation and constant pressure in which they have to work” at meetings with the LIBE committee. They complained that “they can hardly access government”.
The Caruana Galizia inquiry recommended constitutional amendments to make freedom of expression and free journalism a pillar of a democratic society. It also recommended constitutional amendments on the right to receive information from the state and public administration and the obligation to provide such information. It recommended revision of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.
Even before Robert Abela’s latest assault on journalists, the World Press Freedom Index ranked Malta as the 3rd worst EU member state. The LIBE report indicated that “the ruling party wields a strong influence over the public broadcaster and uses public advertising to exert pressure on private media”.
It noted that “access to information, foreseen by the FOI Act, is often violated by public authorities, as requests are rejected, not answered or only partially answered, or replies are delayed”.
The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Teresa Ribeiro, presented a legal analysis of two Maltese draft laws on the media. She recommended, “to include the right to seek information as a basic component of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of information in the relevant amendments to the Constitution”.
Of course, that’s not going to happen. Not when the party leader and prime minister is Robert Abela, whose disdain and contempt for the independent media was made perfectly clear from the start.
For him, journalism is not an essential pillar of democracy but an enemy that needs to be controlled. Even as he launched his campaign to become party leader in late 2019, Abela didn’t even bother to invite the media. He failed to give any interviews despite aspiring to become prime minister.
He asserted that “I am not running from the media” despite refusing to accept to be interviewed by the independent media. “I welcome scrutiny from the media, but I want to maintain an appropriate distance”, he insisted. But when he was asked about the more than €500,000 in direct orders he received, he went on the attack.
He cautioned the press, saying, “you should be more neutral”. His insolent reply was, “I paid back every cent I ever received from government through hard work and results”. Presumably, those results included the €45,000 profit he made off the deal with alleged kidnapper Christian Borg. Or the rock bottom priced Zejtun property he acquired five days after the Planning Authority sanctioned all illegalities.
Abela refused to answer questions sent to him by the press. Repeatedly, he simply ignored the media’s questions. “I am being very careful in my engagement with the independent media,” he added. He emphasised that he was intentionally keeping his distance to be ‘free to make decisions’. What those decisions were are becoming increasingly apparent and increasingly disturbing.
His autocratic treatment of the free press hasn’t changed. On the eve of the last elections, he left a crowd of journalists waiting for hours, only to make a dash for the side door to give them the slip. The journalists had been invited by the OPM to a company launch.
They hadn’t been told they couldn’t ask questions. When they objected, OPM personnel claimed that questions were not permitted since the company wasn’t allowing political questions on their property – a problem easily solved by stepping outside. But by then, Abela was gone.
Journalists had been pursuing Abela for an interview for two years and two months. Abela refused a feature on a day in his life on the campaign trail. He refused a debate with the Leader of the Opposition. All efforts were turned down, prompting The Times of Malta to conduct a fake interview with an empty seat instead of the prime minister.
These are the tactics of spin dictators and autocrats. “Suppressing the free press is how dictators get started,” the late American senator John McCain had said, “we need a free press; we must have it. It’s vital”.
He noted that preserving democracy requires a free, often adversarial press: “Without it, we lose too much of our liberties”. “Efforts on the part of a leader to undermine and manipulate the press are very dangerous,” McCain had warned. That is what Abela is up to.
Abela has been consistently stripping away at institutions protecting our democracy. We know where that leads.