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Roberta Metsola: What Malta Must Do To Protect Its Fourth Estate And Preserve Liberal Democracy

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The global political landscape is shifting. The rise of easy-answer politicians who prefer to bask in the illusion of action rather than take decisions to safeguard our way of life is all too real across our inter-dependent world.

Not so long ago, with the dawn of the internet, we thought easy, free, equal, access to information would educate and inspire the world. It was our guarantee that liberal democracy would survive the challenges of this millennium. Newspapers went online. 24-hour news cycles became closer and more-instant than ever-before, citizen journalism became a reality.

The theory, however, was flawed. As inspiration grew, so did cynicism. As information flowed so did distortion and misinformation. Our gatekeepers, our press, started to be bypassed. Facts became debatable. Soon we saw the gatekeepers become the enemy. Experts dismissed because easily digested popularity trumped hard to swallow truths. Journalists hounded, ridiculed and even killed.

The truth was ignored. 

Some politicians used this to their advantage. The fourth estate has always kept everyone in power in check, but our new reality has shown that with enough money and technical expertise, voters have been targeted, influenced and ultimately swung.

Tools created for good, are being used against us, everywhere. Our personal data, often freely given away, has seen the creation of profiles, patterns and algorithms that pinpoint and exploit our beliefs, prejudices and political leanings.

Malta and Gozo are no exception, the inordinate amounts of tax-payer funds being spent by Government ministers on pure propaganda is enormous. There is a total blurring of the lines between legitimate government business and Ministerial ego-trips. Trolled comments, ‘likes’, re-tweets are used to claim legitimacy for any given policy.

Do you even remember the last time our Prime Minister sat down for a no-holds barred interview with an independent journalist? It was years ago.

Local media houses simply cannot compete with an almost-unlimited taxpayer-funded war chest exploited by Government.

And if they cannot compete, then they cannot hold politicians to account.

And if they cannot hold politicians to account there is no one to separate fact from fiction.

And that benefits only the unscrupulous, the unprincipled and the corrupt.

Because that is when the lie quickly becomes the truth. 

While Ministers popped champagne corks, to me, the mere fact that a Eurobarometer survey shows that more people in Malta and Gozo trust the Government rather than the independent press is cause for concern. It shows how eroded our way of life is becoming. 

The press too has to carry its share of the responsibility, the blurring of lines between advertorials and news is increasingly worrying. Financial pressures have put enormous strain on media houses. We need them to be in a position to be able to compete to employ the best of Maltese talent. Journalism as a career rather than a stepping stone must again become the norm.

The press is not like any other business. It cannot be allowed to fail.

The press is not like any other business. It cannot be allowed to fail.

And in my view, Government must step in to guarantee that reality. The long-term gains of a free, well-funded press is vital for liberal democracy to survive the onslaught of propaganda. 

The press is not like any other business. It cannot be allowed to fail and if the market is being distorted by excessive and opaque Government advertising, then it is time to take drastic measures to save the press as we know it. 

There are a number of options that can be considered: from tackling transparency by appointing an independent commission to decide on how all Government advertising is being spent to looking at different models for State-support for media houses. 

The million-Euro question is how to square the circle to ensure that this support is not abused of to become another weapon against the very systems it is intended to protect. To me, we need to look at issues that can be project based – allowing media houses to apply for state-funding to promote digitalisation or to protect the paper-press, the options are many.

Another avenue worth exploring would be to look at fiscal measures that could be put in place to support the media industry, without even the illusion of being in debt to any administration. It worked when we created industries like iGaming, or financial services, we could use that same fiscal know-how to work to protect our free press. To safeguard our way of life. To support our democracy.

There may be more than one answer, but with another budget looming, our economy growing and our media houses under more pressure than ever before now is the time to take action.

 We have to start this conversation. The press is not the enemy. We protect it or we will all pay the price.

Roberta Metsola is a Nationalist Party MEP

Lovin Malta is open to external contributions that are well written and thought provoking. If you would like your commentary to be featured as a guest post, please write to hello@lovinmalta.com and add Guest Commentary in the subject line. Contributions are subject to editing and do not necessarily represent Lovin Malta’s views.

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