News

May 5, 2019

Reporters Without Borders lays out reasons for Malta’s decline in press freedom ranking

Reporters Without Borders (RSF)‘s World Press Freedom Index which was released on April 18 has seen Malta’s ranking slide 32 places in the last two years. This should be a cause for concern. Instead, Mark Anthony Falzon, in his column entitled ‘Reporters Without Arguments’, chose to criticise the Index. RSF is therefore putting its arguments forward to address any misconceptions contained in Op-Ed, that the Sunday Times of Malta published in the edition dated May 5th.

In a column published in the Sunday Times of Malta on April 28), Prof Falzon, a senior Lecturer and Head of Department at the University of Malta, states that he is “not convinced that press freedom in Malta is more threatened today than it was, say, five years ago (when the ranking was 45)”. While Malta’s ranking over the last five years faced dips and climbs, it was in the last two years that the country’s position has deteriorated to such an extent.

During that time, a journalist was brutally killed in a car bomb outside her home, and a year and a half later there is still no sign of who commissioned her murder.

That a journalist is killed is no small matter. Prof Falzon says thatDaphne Caruana Galizia “was happy to risk her life rather than have her journalistic work compromised”, and yet he fails to address the point that a journalist should not need to make that choice in a free society.  

Contrary to what Prof Falzon states, a public inquiry into whether Ms Caruana Galizia’s death could have been prevented is not “a waste of time and money” but an obligation in line with the State’s “investigative duty” outlined in Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights: the right to life.

The Venice Commission’s report on Malta points out it is the primary duty of the State to secure the right to life by putting in place effective criminal law provisions to deter the commission of offences against the person, backed up by law enforcement machinery for the prevention, suppression and punishment of breaches of such provisions.

These concerns were also echoed by the Council of Europe and the European Parliament – and all also called on the Maltese government to ensure that the media and civil society can play an active role in public affairs holding the authorities accountable.

While Prof Falzon seems to equate journalistic comment with the work of trolls on social media, it must be pointed out that in Malta the link between trolls targeting journalists and activists, and the Party in government has been proven. The targeting that Caruana Galizia suffered did not end with her death. Trolls unleashed by the State are aimed at silencing criticism of a government – a situation that is not conducive to democracy.

SLAPP lawsuits continue to be a threat to the ability of the media in Malta to report the truth; their use leading to self-censorship and the removal of published findings, effectively altering the record and denying citizens the right to know.

When Ms Caruana Galizia was assassinated, she faced over 40 libel cases. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat  is among the members of government who continue to pursue these cases posthumously. It is also of particular concern that public officials continue to publicly denigrate the legacy of Ms Caruana Galizia.

The index addresses the dominance of political parties in the media landscape in Malta and the lack of independence of the State broadcaster. The concern on the lack of pluralism in the Maltese media has been noted in a number of reports and studies, including the Media Pluralism Monitor that registers “a very high 83% risk level" on the political independence of media in Malta.

All these factors are obstacles to journalists’ ability to do their job without undue pressure or fear of retribution. Threats, insults and attacks are now part of the “occupational hazards” for journalists in many countries.

Despite Prof Falzon’s stated “deep dislike” of indexes, the World Press Freedom Index is an important advocacy tool based on the principle of emulation between States. The methodology used is the same across 180 countries (fully transparent and publicly available). The Index is a point of reference that is quoted by media throughout the world and is used by diplomats and international entities such as the United Nations and the World Bank.

Prof Falzon attributes a number of statements to RSF that have no basis in reality. He asks: “Are Reporters Without Borders seriously telling us that a government that doesn’t subsidise the press is a threat to press freedom?”  In no way did RSF state, or even suggest, this in the Index. It is not its scope.

The Index is a clear snapshot of the media freedom situation based on an evaluation of pluralism, independence of the media, quality of legislative framework and safety of journalists in each country and region. It does not rank public policies even if governments obviously have a major impact on their country’s ranking. Nor is it an indicator of the quality of journalism in each country or region.