Protection for the weak - Mark Anthony Falzon

I once had a conversation with a priest about respect for his type. He told me that one of the callings of the Church was to oppose injustice, in­equality and the abuse of power, and that it followed that this would bring it into conflict with all manner of people. Respect and esteem were not things the clergy ought to aspire to; on the contrary, all-round respect would probably mean someone was not doing their job properly.

What’s more, conflict could bring with it actual violence and, in extreme cases, death. For example, Archbishop Oscar Romero’s assassination in 1980 was a direct result of his social activism. For the clergy, then, there were occupational risks.

Which brings me to journalists, and specifically to journalists who work in Malta. Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination seems to have reminded them that, rather like the Church, one of their callings is to expose injustice, inequality and the abuse of power. This is likely to get them into trouble and expose them to all sorts of abuse. It might even get them killed.

There is talk in some circles that journalists in Malta face a growing hostility and need protection. I disagree.

I don’t think it’s true that hostility towards journalists has increased. Nor is the freedom of the press in deeper trouble than usual. There are a million things the matter with Joseph Muscat’s government, but a systematic and growing threat to the freedom of the press is not one of them.

Take Caruana Galizia’s assassination, which very likely had to do with her having got in the way of, or close enough to be a threat to, some major political, criminal or money interest. That she took on the task and (presumably) persisted is to her great credit.

That she died doing so does not mean that journalists in Malta are being killed off, or that the freedom of the press is at risk. Anyone who crosses the kind of power she routinely did is likely to get into trouble, be they a journalist, a priest or an activist. It’s a matter of occupational risk that will always be there, and that has nothing to do with a threat to journalism. On the contrary, it is its very essence.

It follows that the police investigation, which so far seems to have produced significant results, is not government’s defence of press freedom. It would be a victory for justice, rather than a triumph of press freedom, if the people who commissioned the job were found and punished.

Too many journalists are cocooned in comfort zones kept cosy by the State and private interests

Clearly, there are other things besides outright violence that can make the lives of journalists difficult. Of late, there has been talk of Labour trolls or elves or whatever they’re called. Apparently, these are people who spend their time online heaping invective on journalists who are critical of the Muscat government. It is said that these Calibans are tacitly supported by Labour.

Be that as it may, I don’t think the Laburisti sal-Mewt and such types are a threat to the freedom of the press. On the contrary, their missiles are an indication that some journalists at least are doing their job properly and hitting where it hurts.

Which brings me to protection. I read something the other day about a group of NGOs that petitioned the European Commission for greater protection to journalists, because the assassination of two of them (in Malta and Slovakia) was a sign that all was not well for press freedom in Europe.

Let’s leave aside the fact that the two assassinations were completely disconnected, and that coincidences rarely add up to a vertebrate cause. The point is that protection comes with strings attached. Caruana Galizia understood very well that the cost of safety is a dented freedom. She chose to embrace investigative journalism with all its freedoms and risks, which is why she gave the finger to police protection.

Journalists who argue that they ought to be systematically protected are a bit like academics who think that it’s a good idea for universities to join forces with the State and private industry. It’s a sell-out of the freedoms that define the job, for the sake of safety and convenience.

If there is a problem with journalism in Malta, it’s precisely that there is too much, rather than too little, protection and safety. Too many journalists are cocooned in comfort zones kept cosy by the State and private interests.

Take the Institute of Maltese Journalists, which tends to spend its time dishing out rubbish awards and issuing vacuous and inconsequential press releases about the ‘Fourth Estate’. Not content with that, the Institute hosts the – wait for it – Tumas Fenech Foundation for Education in Journalism.

For their part, the party stations are a sort of antechamber to a career in politics. Not only do their journalists not need protection from power; they actually aspire to become that power. The many who have managed include a former leader of the opposition, a prime minister, several MPs and MEPs, members of the Cabinet, and at least one judge. If we need protection at all, it’s from the porosity between journalism and power.

Thankfully, not all members of the clergy live long and contented lives. I can think of at least one journalist who is unlikely to become an MP, and whose online news platform currently faces a number of SLAPP lawsuits. That’s not a threat to the freedom of the press, but rather a glimmer of hope that there’s some of it left.

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