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Muted speech and a distant dream - Francis Zammit Dimech

Within the European Parliament, I have made it a point to follow media issues pro-actively. I firmly believe that independent media and investigative journalists are key to safeguarding democracy and our right to be informed, more so when we are witnessing most of our institutions in a state of collapse.

At the beginning of this month we marked Press Freedom Day. Well, some of us did. Others rallied in crowds to scream adulation at a political leader who called them with the express and declared intention of giving the flick to the world’s journalistic community.

This is Malta’s government’s response to the world’s concern that in a European democracy an anti-corruption journalist was blown up in her car.

It is a shameful, disgraceful response. It is an unwitting admission of guilt when our government stands accused of exposing independent journalists to threats, intimidation and structured and mobilised demonisation.

In recent weeks, it has been proven that the Labour Party is making systematic use of electronic media to spread rumours, falsehoods and slander regarding its critics and opponents.

But when the hate is focused on journalists, Labour’s methods are manifestly intended to undermine the very functioning of democracy. Since those innocent days of Maltastar.com (Joseph Muscat remembers it, even if you don’t) we have walked into social media, the ubiquitous use of Facebook and mobilised troll armies, the most powerful weapon of free speech destruction in the Labour arsenal.

It is simplistic to think that Daphne Caruana Galizia was the only valid journalist in the country. But there can be no controversy about the fact she was the best. Now that she’s gone, other writers and journalists are getting a small share of the venom she suffered every day of her life, as she is no longer on the front line absorbing all the heat.

When we talk of press freedom in Malta, I know that we have much to fight for before we can celebrate

I have spoken to journalists who tell me how the demented viciousness that everyone can see on Facebook then extends into real life.

Journalists have told me how on early mornings waiting with their children for the school bus, they have been taunted from passing cars and have to explain to their children they have nothing to be scared of. I’ve been told how their cars have been scratched again and again, then they find people waiting for them at the street corner to laugh out loud at the reaction.

Journalists have told me about incessant heckling in the street as they walk to run some errands. Insults are thrown at them by passers-by even as they walk with their spouses and children.

Journalists have told me they read the Facebook posts of people who say they hope for the opportunity to shoot at those who oppose their political heroes, with whom they then pose for photographs. They have told me their sources in government offices are submitted to witch-hunts and put under enormous pressure to lie for their bosses merely to save themselves from harassment and retribution.

They have told me of nuisance lawsuits from B-ranked politicians, frivolous in their claims but expensive, time consuming and energy sapping to defend.

Journalists have told me of the increasing fear of sources to speak up and colleagues to report on what they know, as they are surrounded by a network where political power colludes with crime and the threat of violence.

They have told me of the stone wall in the minds of readers, who are only interested in information that confirms their prejudices and their preconceived assumptions. Of how it is impossible to compete with the resources of the State and the political party in government.

Journalists have told me how their lives changed when they woke up in a country where a colleague had been killed. How it only got worse when they saw certain well-known elements celebrate that fact.

Journalists have told me how it feels to have the grief of even a few who sought to keep the memory of their colleague alive censored and wiped out repeatedly under the guidance of persons who are supposed to be standing up for diversity and freedom of speech as the core of what European culture is all about.

That happens in a society where culture is designed from the top and exists to prop up the regime without challenge and without any original thought.

When we talk of press freedom in Malta, I know we have much to fight for before we can celebrate the right to speak as a heritage to cherish rather than a distant dream on the other side of the nightmare of forced silence that mutes us today.

Francis Zammit Dimech is a Nationalist Party MEP.

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