When local experts or international entities speak out against or warn about, any of the government’s policies – proposed or in the offing – invariably an “opinion” piece, penned by the government minister formally “responsible” for that policy, will be published, exalting the government’s efforts, listing the government’s impeccable track record and waxing lyrical about the advantages of whatever issue the naysayers are opposing or warning about.
This is now a well-established pattern that authorities in Malta employ every time they are faced with any form of public resistance. The current administration is loath to accept this criticism (any criticism, for that matter), let alone change course because of that criticism, so it does the opposite: it will double down on its stance.
Everybody hates it, so let’s opine that it’s great
Over the past week, the government’s legislative proposals for protecting journalists and strengthening media freedom in Malta were strongly criticised by all quarters.
After numerous analyses at both local and international levels, the overall conclusion is that these proposed laws fail to meet the required international standards, were drafted without proper consultation and, worst of all, give the false impression that journalists in Malta are being better protected, when in fact, upon reading the fine print, they are not.
Predictably, in the face of all this, Justice Minister Jonathan Attard penned an opinion piece on the matter that was published last Sunday on Malta Today entitled ‘Delivering the Promise of Media Reform’.
Given the circumstances, the headline alone is absurd – the legislation is not about reform of the media, but reform of the State and its responsibility to ensure press freedom and the protection of journalists. But it gets worse.
Attard’s reality-bending article starts by extolling the Labour administration’s “governance credentials” and then goes on to repeat the misleading claim that “broad consultation took place” and “that there were several public debates on this subject”, despite everyone denying this. Then he lists the laws that local and international media experts have repeatedly criticised.
Attard concludes his version of events by describing the government’s proposals as “groundbreaking” and “innovative” and that “like any other reform in a democracy, there will be a debate”.
Remember Zammit Lewis’ Bills?
Attard’s article is reminiscent of Edward Zammit Lewis, who, in July last year, tried to push through constitutional amendments that were fiercely opposed by many legal professionals.
Here’s a quick refresher: The then-justice minister Edward Zammit Lewis wanted the House of Representatives to approve a Bill that would have allowed penal sanctions to be imposed even by tribunals, many of which hardly qualify as independent, instead of solely by the courts established under Malta’s Constitution.
Maltese legal experts from all quarters strongly disagreed. Faced with such strong resistance, Zammit Lewis turned to the Venice Commission in the hope of getting these harmful legal provisions endorsed internationally. Yet the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission agreed with Malta’s legal experts.
Zammit Lewis’s Bills were defeated in parliament but not before he penned an opinion piece in The Times of Malta titled, ‘The Venice Commission Ruled in our Favour’ and was quickly taken to task by readers and legal experts alike.
Abela tries his hand at inverting reality
Prime Minister Robert Abela recently tried something similar in his letter to the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, who had written to him to voice her concerns over the government’s proposed laws related to the safety of journalists. In his reply to the Commissioner, Abela made numerous disingenuous claims that have been repeatedly debunked.
Understandably, the Commissioner was having none of it and, in response, published her correspondence with Abela.
Therefore, just like Abela and Zammit Lewis before him, the justice minister’s article in Malta Today goes well beyond the boundaries of what could be considered a reasonably held different opinion that has some basis in factual truth.
The uncritical publication or promotion of “stories” or “opinions” based on a complete inversion of facts renders the publishers or promoters, whether they like it or not, complicit in a disservice to the public.
On the same day as the justice minister’s opinion piece in Malta Today, the newspaper’s owner Saviour Balzan wrote in defence of his and his colleagues’ role on the government-appointed ‘committee of experts’ tasked with reviewing the draft legislative proposals.
Interspersed in this defence are paragraphs dedicated to defending his appointment within the committee and snippets describing his long career in journalism. In short, Balzan conflates criticism of the government’s lack of consultation with criticism of him and the suitability of his presence on the committee.
The questions raised about Balzan’s role within the committee are not entirely without foundation. Balzan’s media companies remain the preferred recipients of some of the government’s most lucrative funding.
Nonetheless, had the legislative proposals presented by the government been thorough and had they met the required international standards, then perhaps concerns about Balzan’s suitability on the committee would have been misplaced.
What happened instead is that the committee, including Balzan and his much-vaunted years of experience in the field, agreed to keep their discussions with the government confidential, only to be then blamed for a sub-standard legislative package that risks doing more harm than good.
Where are we now?
In a letter to the prime minister on Monday, the Institute of Maltese Journalists (IĠM) representatives on the committee said the proposed legal amendments were not bold enough and fell short of what could have been achieved for the protection of journalists and freedom of expression, and threatened to walk away from the reform process altogether unless the legislation on media protection is opened for consultation.
We now find ourselves with Jonathan Attard and Robert Abela writing that all is swell, Saviour Balzan defending himself and the media committee, and two members from the same committee threatening to walk away from the process altogether (although this was met with criticism that that move would have made sense before they agreed to submit to the government’s demands of non-disclosure).
Twenty-four hours after the IĠM representatives sent their letter, Abela defended the proposed legislation and insisted that the committee could have consulted with whomever it wished – despite correspondence published to show this was not the case. He added that the parliamentary debate would be another opportunity for the legislation to be amended if there is the need to do so. But we all know that process will not lead to any real change, especially when stakeholders remain excluded.