After Caruana Galizia murder, Malta falls 18 places in press freedom index

Malta tumbles 18 places to 67 in Reporters Without Borders press freedom index

A demonstrator holds up a photo of Daphne Caruana Galizia at a vigil held in February 2018
A demonstrator holds up a photo of Daphne Caruana Galizia at a vigil held in February 2018

Malta has fallen 18 places in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) press freedom index, down to 65th place from 47 in 2017.

The drastic fall is equalled by a similar decline for Mauritania, with Malta now in league with countries like Malawi and El Salvador, and just above EU member states Croatia, Hungary and Greece. Slovakia and the Czech Republic had similar falls in the index ranking.

RSF said Europe had been shaken by two murders, as well as by threats to investigative reporters and unprecedented verbal attacks on the media.

“The traditionally safe environment for journalists in Europe has begun to deteriorate. Two murders in the space of five months, the first in Malta and the second in Slovakia, have capped a worrying decline for the continent’s democracies,” RSF said.

RSF said journalist and blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia’s targeted car bomb death had “lifted the veil on the judicial harassment and intimidation” to which journalists are subjected in Malta. Caruana Galizia had been threatened for years and at the time of her death was the target of 42 civil suits and five criminal cases.

Published every year since 2002 by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the World Press Freedom Index ranks 180 countries according to the level of freedom available to journalists. The degree of freedom is determined by pooling the responses of experts to a questionnaire devised by RSF. This qualitative analysis is combined with quantitative data on abuses and acts of violence against journalists during the period evaluated.

Slovakia, down 10 places to 27th, was still reeling from the murder of a 27-year-old investigative reporter who had been covering corruption and the mafia.

RSF singled out political leaders as becoming increasingly the source of the verbal attacks and harassment that create a hostile climate for journalists. In Slovakia, relations between the media and (now former) Prime Minister Robert Fico were marred by frequent incidents. He called them “filthy anti-Slovak prostitutes” and “idiotic hyenas” and often sued them.

In the Czech Republic (down 11 places to 34th), President Milos Zeman brandished a dummy Kalashnikov inscribed with the word “journalists” at a press conference, after previously calling journalists “manure” and “hyenas” and suggesting they should be “liquidated” while standing alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In Hungary (down two places to 73rd), Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has accused Hungarian-born US billionaire philanthropist George Soros of supporting independent media outlets in order to “discredit” Hungary in the international public’s eyes, and has branded him public enemy No. 1.

In Croatia, an EU member state since 2013 that is up five places to 69th, the new liberal-conservative HDZ–HNS ruling coalition says it considers press freedom to be of prime importance. But the growing influence of hate speech, which is proving hard to curb, is a source of concern.

“Politicians have not sufficiently condemned the verbal violence against journalists that has invaded the public arena. Spreading to the rest of Europe This sickening atmosphere is not limited to central Europe. Political leaders elsewhere have resorted to this rhetoric, which is not just unpleasant but also dangerous for journalists,” RSF said.

In Austria, the leader of the far-right populist FPÖ party accused the public radio and TV broadcaster ÖRF of spreading lies.

In Spain (down two at 31st), the October independence referendum in Catalonia exacerbated tension and created an oppressive atmosphere for journalists, with harassment on social networks fuelled by the intemperate language used by Catalan officials about journalists who do not support independence.

France (up six at 33rd) is no exception. “Media bashing” by politicians peaked during the 2017 election campaign and some still resort to denigrating journalists whenever they are in trouble. Claiming that media in the pay of centrist President Emmanuel Macron’s party were orchestrating a campaign to discredit him, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the left-wing France Unbowed party wrote in his blog that “hatred of the media and their presenters is fair and healthy” and voiced support for right-wing leader Laurent Wauquiez’s condemnation of “media bullshit.”

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