Strengthening the journalism industry appears to have shot straight to the top of the Prime Minister’s to-do list in the wake of the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry.
Robert Abela said the industry must become more financially sustainable, invited the Institute of Maltese Journalists to a meeting to discuss the way forward, and called for more overall recognition of the important role played by the fourth estate in democracy.
“Scrutiny is important. If you don’t want to be scrutinised you shouldn’t be a public figure. If as a country we don’t understand this we would have learned nothing,” he argued.
On paper, this is a signal that Abela might be ready to depart from Joseph Muscat’s strategy of viewing critical press as a political adversary.
In fact, the public inquiry report succinctly highlighted how Muscat had described Caruana Galizia as “the Opposition”, completely ignoring the fact that she had no intention of getting into power herself but rather of holding the government to account in the way she knew how to.
This mindset of dismissing all criticism or differing opinions as political adversity from ‘the other side’ is widespread, evidenced for example by Valletta Cultural Agency chairman Jason Micallef’s barely-concealed glee that Mark Laurence Zammit will no longer present his popular show on TVM.
Abela’s statement is therefore a welcome development, but is he really willing to put it into practice or was it just a snap reaction to the damning conclusion of the public inquiry?
Is he really committed to defending the rights of journalists to scrutinise the powers-that-be or does he intend to use this ‘journalism reform process’ as a way to deflect all future criticism of the way the government treats the industry just like Joseph Muscat did when he decriminalised libel suits?
There is one way Abela can put his pledge to the test.
Ever since his election as Prime Minister a year and a half ago, Robert Abela has been avoiding most interviews with the independent media unless he could exercise a degree of control over them.
Last year, Abela gave his first, and so far only, interview to Lovin Malta, but with time constraints and on condition that it was also filmed by and broadcast live on ONE TV.
This follows a trend set by Muscat, who had refused all interview requests by the local press since 2017 and whose last serious interview with the foreign press was in January 2018 – almost two years before his resignation.
His media blackout was hardly surprising in light of his declaration to the public inquiry – after all, if he considers the independent media to be a political adversary, it follows that he personally wouldn’t want to enter Opposition territory.
Only thing is the media isn’t the Opposition, and it isn’t the government either. It’s one of four pillars of democracy – along with the government, Parliament and the courts – and in a healthy democracy, all four pillars should be allowed to act as checks and balances on each other.
As Abela himself said, “if you don’t want to be scrutinised you shouldn’t be a public figure… if as a country we don’t understand this we would have learned nothing.
He is absolutely right of course, but as the Prime Minister, he should lead by example. Lovin Malta is therefore publicly requesting an interview with him, and we hope he accepts it.
Do you think Robert Abela will accept this invitation?