Malta’s media malaise 2018 - Victor Paul Borg
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Malta’s media malaise 2018 - Victor Paul Borg

Countless challenges plague the local media landscape

By having a sympathetic national TV, as well as one’s own trio of media outlets, the ruling party can flog its message to more than half of Malta’s population.

By having a sympathetic national TV, as well as one’s own trio of media outlets, the ruling party can flog its message to more than half of Malta’s population.

The three international reports on Malta’s ailing media published in the last three months make grim reading. They come on the heels of other critical representations, including a report by NGOs to the UN’s human rights council.

Among the latest reports, an international mission of media organisations stated on October 19 that Malta was “failing to safeguard press freedom”, and the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe said that the “media” is “essential for democracy” and that in Malta the media is “having difficulty living up to its needs”.

The woes of the media were gauged more extensively around a month ago in the Media Pluralism Monitor (MPM), a study by the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom of the European University Institute, which found Malta in the red on several key indicators.

These reports cap a year in which Malta has sustained widespread flak from international human rights and freedom of expression organisations. Although such unprece­dented scrutiny of Malta’s governance and media was triggered by the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the criticism be­came increasingly strident throughout the progression of the year because of what was seen as stonewalling by the Maltese government.

Malta’s international name is in the dregs – even online gambling companies in recent weeks warned of potential blowback on their operations by ongoing bad press on Malta’s democratic deficits. Yet the government has remained largely unfazed, taking comfort in the insularity of the populace and the adage that all politics is local, at least in the short-term.

A reading of these reports, including the international organisations’ representation to the Universal Periodic Review of the UN’s Human Rights Council which took place last month, would synthesise Malta’s media malaise to a handful of key overarching issues.

Top of these is the usurpation of the media space by the main political parties, which churn out glorified propaganda via media outlets that make a travesty of journalistic ethics. In no other democratic country in Europe and beyond do political parties occupy such a wide swathe of the media space.

In the 1990s, the nascent media of the political parties was hailed as a leap forward in media pluralism; more than 20 years later the political parties’ media empires have stifled pluralism. The MPM now flags media pluralism at ‘high risk’, a score of 83 per cent.

TVM’s control by the government also contributes to this high risk. The political puppeteering of the national TV is accomplished through appointing sycophants, or at least those of sympathetic political leanings, to key roles, in turn fostering leanings this way or that. And by having a sympathetic national TV, as well as one’s own trio of media outlets, the ruling party can flog its message to more than half of Malta’s population (TVM is the most viewed station, followed by One TV).

The sprawling Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) has also been directly targeting the internet generation by flooding social media with its message. This stratagem has to be seen in the context of Malta having the highest percentage of people in the EU who access news via online sources, particularly on social media. Figures given recently in Parliament reveal the scale of the social media campaign: the OPM spent €9,000 on Facebook advertising alone between last June and October.

All of this is serving to narrow the space and influence of the independent media, constituted in main by the three English-language newspapers. These newspapers are grappling with diminished finances, a situation that can lead to susceptibility to political influence by the government’s discretionary and opaque allocation of advertising. No wonder Malta is also in ‘high risk’ territory when it comes to political independence of the media and editorial autonomy.

The disinterest of the political parties in the media’s woes proves that they are not ready to relinquish the stranglehold on the media in their turns of governance

It doesn’t help that the Institute of Maltese Journalists (IGM) is seen as inept. The MPM draws attention to its outdated journalistic code of ethics – a new code has been in the works for considerable time – and its shirking from protecting editorial independence. An example of out­dated­ness of the code of ethics is the clause that asserts that it is unethical to “use hidden cameras or microphones, false identity or other means of entrapment”. Yet entrapment and covertness are two distinct techniques that remain undifferentiated in the code of ethics. The use of covert footage or recording, as well as assumed identity or aliases, are all established legitimate practices in journalism in the Western world. Sometimes you have to go covert to gather evidence of wrongdoing, but going covert is not the same as entrapment.

The IGM’s silence following last October’s gag on Xarabank by a magistrate was also striking. Editors of independent newspapers, as well as the commentariat generally, denounced the magistrate’s decision to prohibit Xarabank from broadcasting an interview. But the IGM was paralysed on the matter because of division among its members.

It’s a kind of paralysis that hobbles journalism more widely in Malta. The country’s media is fragmented and divided; these divisions are exacerbated by partisan allegiance. The disunity, and absence of solidarity, and the political parties’ encroachment on much of the media space is largely to blame for low public confidence in the media.

Read: What rule of law experts said about Malta, and why it matters

Even in the independent media there is a scatter of journalists whose journalistic integrity is sometimes perverted by partisanship. It doesn’t auger well that the media in Malta is mistrusted by two-thirds of the population, as are the courts – low trust in these two pillars of democracy is a diagnosis of democratic malaise.

In a proper code of ethics, journalists who work for the media outlets of the ruling party would be barred from taking on jobs as media consultants or spokespersons in government. Of course, no one supposes that journalists of party media are independent minded, but they are less likely to have a few sinews in their journa­listic body of work that flexes independently if the political party that employs them also doubly rewards them with additional lucrative government engagements. Such brazen disdain for the barest of ethical standards demonstrates the perverting in­fluence of political party usur­pation of wide swathes of media.

A parallel lapse can be found in the relatively low standards of journalism, which are of ‘medium risk’ to pluralism and media vigour according to the MPM.

Among other impingements on freedom of expression flagged in recent reports is Article 93 of the Criminal Code, which makes it a criminal offence to “revile” a judge or magistrate, even the Attorney General. This was highlighted by various NGOs, including the London-based Article 19, one of the most eminent international advocates of human rights which three weeks ago issued a report decrying the growing international culture of impunity and attacks on journalism, Malta included.

The next article in the Criminal Code sets even harsher penalties in cases where “the object of the vilification is that of damaging or diminishing the reputation of the person against whom it is directed” – punishment in such cases is imprisonment of 12 months to two years as well as a fine of €700 to €2,500. The vague wording, especially the generic “diminishing the reputation”, make this law virtually fascist in spirit and, although it’s hard to envisage its invocation, this law has a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

The MPM also states that Malta is one of a few countries in Europe which does not have a poli­cy on media literacy. This refers to curricula on the functions and roles of media in schools and colleges, an essential educational component in democratic countries in which the media plays a key public role. A media-literate popu­lace would foster more professionalism in the media.

Yet despite the flak, the disinterest of the political parties in the media’s woes proves that they are not ready to relinquish the stranglehold on the media in their turns of governance, much less close down their propagandist media.

All politics may be local, but the international opprobrium is inversely proportional to economic strength. And when the economy inevitably dips – economic fortunes are cyclical – the bad reputation would amplify the effect of the economic downturn.

An indication of how awry we have gone in safeguarding freedom of expression is the fact that the Venice Commission, Europe’s highest body in constitutional and rule-of-law matters, felt that in its report on Malta it had to “insist” that “it is an international obligation of the government to ensure that the media and civil society can play an active role in holding authorities accountable”.  

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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