Best in the world, just worse than Congo and Montenegro...

Malta has historically been on the low end of the wider press freedom rankings, but then again, do we deserve to be down at 84?

It is a month until my term on a media experts’ commission comes to an end. It will also be 38 years since I published my first newspaper and started out as a journalist. So as I look back, I read the latest press freedom index from Reporters sans Frontiers with some interest. Not many people would have cared to dig deep, but the RSF index places Malta at 84th place, globally – an abysmal placing that should set us thinking.

Malta has historically been on the low end of the wider press freedom rankings, but then again, do we deserve to be down at 84? Before Malta’s ranking in terms of press freedom, some countries with harsher climates for journalists seem to enjoy more press ‘freedom’ – like Poland and Hungary, ex-communist states with more than a flavour of law and order in their ruling parties, whose decisions on pluralism, intolerance for opposition groups and parties, minorities, or freedom of association, have been widely documented and earned the rebuke of the European Union.

Or else, if look further in the index, we even find none other than Congo, where freedom of assembly is restricted and security forces beat up people in detention; Armenia too beat Malta, where no progress is ever reported in investigating war crimes from the recent 2020 Armenia/Azerbaijan armed conflict and its immediate aftermath, where Law enforcement officers use excessive force during anti-government protests, and where freedom of expression is restricted as hundreds faced criminal prosecution for allegedly “insulting” officials; and performing ‘better’ than Malta apparently is Montenegro... where 25 attacks on journalists were reported, and whose government is foreign assistance to re-investigate the 2004 murder of Duško Jovanović, editor of Dan newspaper, and whose Supreme Court ordered a retrial of investigative journalist Jovo Martinović, after his 2020 conviction for allegedly participating in drug trafficking was quashed.

I could go on, but it makes for some depressing reading. My sources, by the way, are the last annual report of Amnesty International.

Now RSF raised many issues. The main issue hovered around the recommendations of the Caruana Galizia public inquiry which were not implemented. This is partly true, but one has to see what the government will do with the final recommendations of the media commission and which was also queried by the RSF. Our term is up soon and the report will be sent to the powers that be. I hope the spirit of the report will prove the real intentions and motives of this commission!

What is clear that the RSF’s methodology, which employs a mathemtical weighting depending upon the answers to a questionnaire as well as specific incidents, in the case of Malta has been heavily based on the input of one journalist who runs her own online news website, with its particular bete-noire being Mediatoday’s business, and me personally.

Take for example the way RSF refers to Freedom of Information requests in Malta being an “issue”. Are they really? The Shift has filed some 40 FOI requests seeking information on all forms of public advertising for Mediatoday; their refusals by public authorities has got nothing to do with us but by, one assumes, a disinclination by the government to play ball on FOI matters; the law provides for their appeal, and finally, a court challenge. The courts are ruling in the favour of openness, and so be it.

But RSF’s use of this kind of FOI ‘feud’ in which the interest being served here is that of a competing media house, appears to lionise the prejudices of one person. My feeling is that such an observation, if this is redolent of RSF’s view of the public interest, does not do justice to Malta’s climate of press freedom.

RSF points out that many Maltese journalists have suffered SLAPP actions. To be correct, the threats have been many, as they were against Daphne Caruana Galizia, and even on Mediatoday. To date, not one of these SLAPP threats have manifested themselves in an actionable court outcome in Malta. The real threat, the immediate one, have always been defamation lawsuits by Maltese actors – by politicians and the business class. It is no wonder that this newspaper has ensured the highest number of defamation cases and fines.

RSF also states that politicians give interviews to selected journalists only. That is a sheepish accusation considering the interviews with government officials on all online and printed media for all to see. The problem lies, I guess, with the credibility of one journalist to another. This is an issue that is prevalent in all media climates in the Western world – access varies depending on the influence once commands and also the credibility one possesses.

The RSF states that during COVID, financial assistance was awarded to political party media only. Yet again, incorrect. The media contribution was awarded to all media, after deliberations with media houses based on the number of employees on their books. Everyone benefited, independent media, Church-owned and party-owned media too. Those with no employees on their books at the time of COVID did not benefit.

RSF also laments about the distribution of public funds through advertising to chosen media. But once again, this is false. All media receive advertising depending on their demographics, audience and readership. Most campaigns which are EU-funded impose these criteria against strict auditing.

Another complaint is that minorities and females are not represented in newsroom staffing. And once again, I cannot imagine from which reliable source such a claim is originating. Most newsrooms of all political colour and creed employ people not according to their political opinions, or sexual orientation or gender. Women editors and LGBTIQ editors have headed some of the more influential newsrooms on the island; newsrooms even employ journalists who cannot speak Maltese (when the press environment here is heavily based on knowing Maltese).

The final point from the RSF report is about the fact that the government issues access cards to journalists. I tried to understand where this was going. Malta’s Department of Information press cards are, except for the rare occasions that they are required (for example, during elections) are rarely if ever requested. That Malta’s system of ‘accreditation’ happens to be linked to the DOI is an old practice which however carries no obligation at all. Once again, it appears that the reluctance of one person to apply for a DOI card is taken as a general reflection on the state of freedom of the press in Malta.

I just believe it is time that we use all our resources to strengthen journalism in Malta. At this juncture the IGM, the Maltese Institute of journalists, is best placed to further the interests of journalists.

Even Malta’s media houses are the closest they have ever been in terms of relationships, as a direct consequence of the financial difficulties they face.

We should always look at the governments that rule over us with irreverence. But if we want to continue to exist as independent media houses and continue to employ the right people with the drive to bring home the news, we need a State financial support scheme in place.

Many EU member states provide such assistance, and there is no reason why we should not accept some form of support from the government. There may be those who accuse this proposal as one that will condition us when we write, investigate and take editorial stands. History has shown us that it is not case with the majority of journalists and media houses in Malta and abroad.

It is time to unite as professionals and employers in this fragile industry. But we cannot do this if we are not going to be true to ourselves and to those who support us.