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Obsolete media blackout

Speaking in Parliament a few days ago, Opposition leader Adrian Delia called for the removal of the pre-election media blackout as, he argued, it was obsolete. His call, which has gone largely unreported, was made during a discussion on amendments to the electoral laws.

Although most would agree the blackout is indeed outdated in a communications environment where the internet has pulled down the walls to the free exchange of information, political parties have so far held back from doing away with it.

The law prohibiting the publication of any matter intended, or likely, to influence, voters in the exercise of the franchise in any newspaper, printed matter or other means of communication to the public, on the eve and day of an election, is defied in the social media in practically all countries where it exists, including in Malta.

When Daphne Caruana Galizia was arrested on the eve of the March 2013 general election for breaching the pre-election media blackout, the social media openly defied the law. The police later questioned at least seven Labour Party exponents after the Nationalist Party complained there were others who had likewise breached the law.

Ms Caruana Galizia is no longer around to keep highlighting, along with so many others, the absurdity of the law. She was brutally killed ina car bomb explosion five months ago in what appears to have been outright revenge for her investigative work exposing wrongdoing, corruption and sleaze.

Mounting pressure against the pre-election media blackout had not brought about any change and it is doubtful whether the government will agree with the Opposition leader and decide to do away with a law that no longer has any relevance today. Yet, since there is no way blocking the social media, the glaring anachronism is likely to stand out even more strongly, as is happening abroad.

The way a similar law was circumvented in France in the last election provides a classical example of the futility and absurdity of the restriction. Francophone Swiss and Belgian media with websites freely available in France had already begun reporting results of election-day exit polls before midday, when millions of French people had yet to cast their votes. In other words, the restriction proved absolutely ineffective.

Controversial in all countries where it is enforced, the restriction is seen as highly patronising, anti-democratic and an unjustified interference with the freedom of expression.

It may well be argued that it is not unreasonable for political parties to stop aggressive election campaigning on the eve and day of an election. Indeed, this is most desirable as, after months of electioneering, it will be conducive to producing a more amenable environment for voters to do their duty, free of last-minute party political pressure. Yet, while political parties can regulate themselves in the way they deem most appropriate to them, it is illogical to impose a total blackout on the communications media since time does not stand still and, in any case, there are as yet no barriers strong enough to restrict the social media.

It would therefore seem that the best way forward is for the political parties to regulate themselves and allow the media and “other means of communication” the freedom to operate in their usual manner, free of any legal shackles.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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