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Undermining the press

The press and media may sometimes be troublesome and expose matters we would prefer to think did not exist. Photo: Toby Melville/Reuters

The press and media may sometimes be troublesome and expose matters we would prefer to think did not exist. Photo: Toby Melville/Reuters

A year ago, blogger and journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia broke the news about the involvement of a minister and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff in a highly suspicious plan to set up a trust in New Zealand, with a shell company in the notoriously secretive jurisdiction of Panama.

Her news story was in the best traditions of investigative journalism and equated in impact and importance to the sensational scoop by Malta Today in the immediate run-up to the last election of a massive corruption scandal at Enemalta.

Caruana Galizia broke a story alleging that a Maltese minister and his aide had visited a brothel in Germany while on an official visit. In true Maltese fashion, the minister concerned has issued a writ for libel against her. But he has also slapped a garnishee order, freezing her bank accounts to the sum of 47,600, a legal step which he is fully entitled to take.

Many – including me – regard the action by the minister to be disproportionate. But many others in this benighted, highly politically polarised country, I suspect, do not regard it as excessive in the blogger’s case.

Her hateful prejudices and divisiveness are well known: “I divide people up in politics,” she has declared, “exactly the same way I do in the rest of my life…: good and bad people…. This is not about Nationalist versus Labour… This is about the difference between good and bad ones… Joseph Muscat was immediately identifiable to me as… a ‘bad character’.”

She would presumably place Cardona in the same boat in justifying her exposure of his alleged sexual peccadillo in Germany.

Unhindered by any objective assessment of policies, except blind instinct and self-serving prejudice about who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’, her view is clear: Nationalist Party equates to ‘good’, and Labour to ‘bad’. The only time she pronounces herself about people who voted Labour is on the poisonous and out-dated basis of social class and ad hominem tittle-tattle. Her snobbish language of hate is a far cry from intelligent criticism.

I clearly do not like Caruana Galizia. But I admire her ability to expose some stories that deserve to be aired. Freedom of speech does not mean a thing if we don’t also defend it for those who offend, rile and outrage. Everyone must have free speech, otherwise it’s not free speech at all. It is privileged speech.

The issue raised by Cardona’s garnishee order is much more fundamental than whether or not the blogger had it coming to her. It is essentially about the freedom of the press in Malta and the country’s out-dated laws of libel.

Since the long fight for the freedom of the press in 18th century Europe, the importance of newspapers in informing and reflecting public opinion has become unquestioned. The need for independent journalists, free comment and access to information, are today agreed by all politicians in thriving democracies throughout the world.

In Malta, we came late to freedom of the press. This was won over a century ago in the face of stiff opposition from the Maltese Church, reluctant as always to cede what it saw as a potential threat to its power.

We have enjoyed freedom of expression and of the press ever since. It is embedded in Article 41 of our Constitution as a fundamental right, although as fellow commentator Michael Falzon has previously pointed out: “In Malta, we have a nominally free press, but also a libel law and relevant case law loaded against this freedom.”

I clearly do not like Caruana Galizia. But I admire her ability to expose some stories that deserve to be aired

The situation is compounded by the intolerance expressed by both sides of Malta’s tribal divide. The mutual dislike generated between citizens, stoked by the vile and poisonous language used by the likes of bloggers Caruana Galizia and Bedingfield (respectively on the Nationalist and Labour sides of the political spectrum) is palpable.

Some newspaper columnists who describe “the others” in universally unsavoury terms with their refusal to acknowledge that the other side may have a perfectly respectable contribution to make also add fuel to the flames.

These attitudes in sections of the press are a mark of Malta’s political immaturity. Some newspapers exercise their versions of free speech under blatantly politically partisan banners. No harm with this, and everybody in Malta knows the score. For some semblance of objectivity, in both news reporting and analysis, however, one has to go to the independent, mainly English-language newspapers of the Times of Malta, The Malta Independent and Malta Today, and their Sunday stablemates.

Malta enjoys a relatively vibrant press. Until recently, our capacity for investigative journalism of the kind we have seen so successfully conducted abroad has been lacking here. Its role is to hold politicians and officialdom to account. We need more, not less, of this in a healthy democracy.

But the absolute test of good investigative journalism must be that the story should be in the public interest, exposing a serious misdemeanour and preventing the public from being misled by some statement or action of an individual, a ministry or organisation.

A matter is in the public interest because the public has the right to know, in the service of fairness and openness as part of a democracy, if it is being deceived. Malta needs this robust form of reporting if we want to preserve an open society. I am confident that Panamagate falls squarely into this category, but I doubt whether the piece of salacious gossip about Cardona’s alleged activities in Germany does. The courts will decide.

The press and media may sometimes be troublesome and expose matters we would prefer to think did not exist, but the alternative of a cosy establishment that only looks after its own interests is worse.

The press in Malta must continue to strive objectively to assess the successes, failures and follies of our political masters – and other powerful institutions, including the judiciary and the Church – in a fashion which may sometimes provoke dismay.

The problem with our journalism is not that too many awkward questions are asked, but that the heavy hand of the law, in the shape of our outdated libel laws, stretched newspaper resources or too cosy a relationship with politicians, ensures that journalists are stopped from getting at the truth.

Speaking Truth to Power lies at the very heart of a truly free press. The press and politicians placed in power over us will always have a close relationship of mutual interest and hostility. Politicians and journalists are locked in a sometimes grisly embrace. This is not perfect but, like democracy, nobody has come up with a better system. The one non-negotiable factor, however, is that we shall always need a brave, aggressive and free press.

If freedom of expression is to mean anything, we must defend the right to shock. The instinct to shock and upset society is almost invariably a positive one. We need more provocation, not less. Other factors being equal, freedom of speech should be paramount.

The case was put most succinctly by George Orwell who defined liberty as “the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.  Free speech means being prepared to have your beliefs ridiculed and your sensibilities offended. We must defend it, not seek to suppress it.

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