Malta drops 12 places to 77th in Reporters Without Borders press freedom index

Abusive judicial proceedings “designed to gag investigative reporters by draining their financial resources” drags Malta down 12 places to 77th in the RSF ranking

Journalists from all local media houses gathered in Valletta in October 2016 after the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia
Journalists from all local media houses gathered in Valletta in October 2016 after the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia

The decline in press freedom in Europe has gone hand in hand with an erosion of the region’s institutions by increasingly authoritarian governments, Reporters Without Borders said in its 2019 press freedom index. 

Abusive judicial proceedings “designed to gag investigative reporters by draining their financial resources” had dragged Malta down 12 places to 77th in the RSF ranking. 

“In Malta, which has continued to fall in the Index (down 12 to 77th place), a handful of journalists are trying to continue the work of anti-corruption blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia. They are shedding light on the island state’s rampant corruption and money-laundering, despite an oppressive and worrying climate still marked by Caruana Galizia’s murder in October 2017. As well as having to live in fear, they are subjected to intense judicial harassment.” 

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Malta recently amended its press laws to introduce a preliminary mediation stage for newspapers sued for defamation, but newspapers have been exposed to threats of SLAPP actions in foreign courts. 

The European Union and Balkans registered the second biggest deterioration (1.7 percent) in its regional score measuring the level of constraints and violations. 

It is still the region where press freedom is respected most and which is, in principle, the safest, but journalists are nonetheless exposed to serious threats: to murder in Malta with the assassination in 2017 of Daphne Caruana Galizia, Slovakia and Bulgaria (111th); to verbal and physical attacks in Serbia and Montenegro (down 1 at 104th); and to an unprecedented level of violence during the Yellow Vest protests in France (down 1 at 32nd). 

“Many TV crews did not dare cover the Yellow Vest protests without being accompanied by bodyguards, and others concealed their channel’s logo. Journalists are also being openly stigmatized. In Hungary (down 14 at 87th), officials in Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party Fidesz continue to refuse to speak to journalists who are not from media that are friendly to Fidesz. In Poland, the state-owned media have been turned into propaganda tools and are increasingly used to harass journalists,” RSF said. 

Paolo Borrometi, a Sicilian journalist who has specialised in covering organised crime, owes his survival to protection from the Italian police, who thwarted a mafia attempt on his life in May 2018. Asked why they had tried to kill him, a detained mafioso replied: “One small death serves as a good lesson to all the others.” In Italy (up 3 to 43rd place), around 20 journalists, including Borrometi and Roberto Saviano, are currently protected by police bodyguards day and night. It is therefore all the more disturbing that interior minister, Matteo Salvini suggested that Saviano’s protection could be withdrawn after he dared to criticise the League party leader. 

Corruption-linked harassment 

From one end of Europe to the other, journalists are harassed as soon as they shed light on sensitive subjects. In Romania (down 3 to 47th place), the current holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, journalists with the RISE Project investigative website had been looking into the misuse of EU development funding for the past several months. They were harassed by the authorities, who invoked the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as grounds for making them reveal their sources

Poland, which has fallen in the Index for the fourth year running (down 1 to 59th place), is no exception. After Tomasz Piatek’s prosecution before a military court for revealing the defence minister’s links with Russian organised crime, the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza’s journalists are now threatened with the possibility of jail sentences for linking ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczyński with a questionable construction project. 

Anti-media rhetoric 

Another disturbing phenomenon took hold in Europe in 2018 – the adoption of an anti-media rhetoric in democracies. Journalists are being vilified, insulted and threatened by persons at the highest level of the political establishment. One of the countries where this trend is growing is France (down 1 to 32nd place), where Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), said it was “healthy and just” to hate journalists. 

In Hungary (down 14 to 87th place), officials in Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party Fidesz continue to refuse to talk to journalists who are not from “friends of Fidesz” media. A few months ago, Orbán refused to answer questions from the critical TV news channel HírTV, dismissing it as nothing more than a source of “fake news.” Some journalists no longer even have the right to address members of the government or ask questions during press conferences. 

Criticism of the media is becoming a political weapon that weakens journalism when systematic. To this end, political leaders have had no scruples about using state-owned media that have been turned into propaganda outlets or at least enlisted in their cause. Use of state-owned media to harass journalists is not new, but the practice has been stepped up. In Poland, where the conservative PiS government has turned the public broadcast media into its mouthpiece, questions are being raised about the state-owned TVP channel’s role in Gdansk mayor Pawel Adamowicz’s murder. TVP named him 1,800 times in the course of the year, always with the aim of denigrating him. The head of the channel has promised to sue all journalists who try to establish a link between these hate messages and Adamowicz’s murder.