Media needs reform, but also assistance

Losing the media may well be convenient for the powers that be; but it is definitely not in the interest of democracy itself

It would be an understatement to suggest that the role of journalism in Malta – and of the media in general – was severely impacted by the 2017 murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Indeed, this is why the Public Inquiry launched in November 2019, was tasked with more than just an assessment of the State’s own responsibility for what happened. The terms of reference also specifically mentioned that one of the aims was to “[determine] whether the State has fulfilled and is fulfilling its positive obligation to take preventive operational measures to protect individuals whose lives are at risk from criminal acts: in particular in the case of journalists.”

Other aspects of the inquiry’s conclusions may have – understandably – been given more press importance; but the inquiry did also fulfil this part of its obligation. It may even have gone a step further, by making a number of recommendations – including some which, while well-meaning, may be difficult to implement – regarding how to better regulate the role of journalism.

Among its recommendations were the creation of a panel of experts to come up with proposals for reform in the media sector; as well as the establishment of a specific police unit to identify threats to journalists.

Other recommendations included the introduction of a clause in the Constitution: to the effect that free journalism is one of the pillars of a democratic society, and that the state has an obligation to guarantee and protect it.

The Public Inquiry also proposed the creation of an Ombudsman’s Office or a Commissioner for Journalism Ethics, that is independent and on the same lines as the Commissioner for standards in Public Life.

But while these are all certainly valid recommendations, in themselves: there are several other issues, linked to media freedoms, that may require tackling first.

For instance, a ‘special police unit’ can only be of limited help, if Maltese law does not increase the gravity of offences if perpetrated against a journalist or media worker in their line of work.

Likewise, there is urgent need for anti-SLAPP legislation that ensures foreign court judgments cannot be enforced locally, if they pose an existential threat to the media. And the reform should also ensure that when multiple libel cases linked to the same matter are filed, these are heard as one case, making it impossible for the courts to impose multiple penalties. 

Nonetheless, the Inquiry does correctly identify many of the core problems. A reform of the Freedom of Information Act is certainly needed, to ensure more openness in the public sector and an obligation on government to reply to journalists’ questions. Better police protection for journalists could also be provided by giving due importance to threats and abuse directed towards media workers.

But apart from these changes that will enable journalists to have more peace of mind, there is another fundamental issue that cannot be ignored – the commercial survival of the media as a whole. 

What all the above recommendations have in common is that they acknowledge a fundamental truth: that the media plays an important role in democracy, acting as both watchdog and agenda setter. Losing the media may well be convenient for the powers that be; but it is definitely not in the interest of democracy itself. 

To this end, any serious reform aimed at ‘protecting journalism’ must also tackle the current, existentialist threats. 

Truth be told, commercial media houses in Malta have suffered a drastic drop in income, as a result of COVID. A return to normality appears nigh to impossible, as consumer patterns were altered significantly by the pandemic: hastening the shift from printed newspapers to online content, where advertising money remains tight.  

If media houses are to employ journalists to produce quality content, they need to make money; and already the sector witnesses an incredibly high turnover in human resources, partly as a result of the high stress that comes with it. Simply put: to ensure that the good people remain, they have to be paid well. 

And while this may seem like a common complaint – if nothing else, because the pandemic has similarly affected other commercial sectors – the reality is that the ‘fourth pillar of democracy’, that we are now so keen to enshrine in the Constitution, also needs financial assistance if it is to survive.

Moreover, it does not bode well for Malta’s democracy that the media faces an existential threat. The disappearance of media houses – which, for all their flaws, are still characterised by a strong journalistic ethic – will only result in a poorer public sphere. 

In brief: any media reform package aimed at ‘safeguarding journalism in Malta’, would also have to consider State aid – which can come in the form of grants, assistance for training and investment, and tax relief for media workers – as well as government transparency on how it disburses advertising. 

For it is ultimately useless to give journalists all the legal tools to carry out their job better and more safely: if, owing to cut-downs on resources, and reduced operations… there are simply no journalists left at all.