Journalists, MEPs and members of the public came together yesterday evening to debate the state of freedom in speech in Malta and beyond, a topic that has been hot on the national agenda since the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Here are the best moments from the debate, which was organised by the European Parliament office in Malta:
1. Reporters Without Borders an independent investigation into Caruana Galizia case
Pauline Adès-Mével from Reporters Without Borders drew applause from the audience when she reiterated her organisation’s stance in favour of a fully independent international investigation into Caruana Galizia’s assassination.
“The situation with regards media freedom has deteriorated across the EU in recent years, and we insist that democracies which have traditionally regarded press freedom as a fundamental right should continue doing so,” she said. “Malta is a good example of this problem. Daphne’s murder was the first killing of a journalist in Europe since the Charlie Hebdo attack and it provoked worldwide shock. At Reporters Without Borders, we work on the Daphne case every single day and we are determined to ensure the situation doesn’t repeat itself here.”
2. MEP Roberta Metsola’s warning against new media trends
Nationalist MEP Roberta Metsola warned that social media platforms have proven dangerously useful tools politicians who want to control and manipulate the public.
“Politicians are using Facebook and Twitter to bypass the gatekeepers of the media, and even more worryingly, to extract our metadata for their own purposes and to manipulate public opinion through troll factories,” she said.
“We’re the first generation of politicians who have never known war and it’s even more crucial than ever that we keep warning people about what happened back then and what could happen in the future. Without an unshackled media, we would have only the illusion of a democracy and a mockery of how the rule of law should function.”
3. Michael Briguglio’s ‘Orwellian state’ claim
Civil society activist and PN Sliema councillor Michael Briguglio delivered a typically fiery speech, accusing Prime Minister Joseph Muscat of damaging press freedom and of going too far in his attempts to manipulate public opinion.
“My kid plays tablet games and he sees Muscat’s face constantly popping up on ads on it; this is Orwell stuff and it is truly a terrible situation,” he said. “Meanwhile, online trolls – some of whom are employed at Castille – are singling out activists who are speaking out.”
“Us activists are now contacting international NGOs, including Amnesty International, and we will not stop until the government takes serious action. In my opinion, the investigation into Daphne’s assassination is a sham. Just look at the timing of the arrests of the three murder suspects…it’s all spin but we’ve grown used to this. The Prime Minister shows us one hand but hides the other.”
4. Journalists’ Association flags Freedom of Information problem
Mario Schiavone from the Malta Institute of Journalists (IGM) warned that the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act, which allows journalists to request data that is in the public interest from government, is not being respected.
“The FOI Act was welcomed by all Maltese media houses, but unfortunately at east 40% of all our requests to government departments have not even been entertained on the grounds that the data requested is commercially sensitive,” he said. “Although we are satisfied that government has accepted our suggestions to improve the proposed Media and Defamation Act, we still think there is room for more improvement. I believe it is useless having good laws if they are not enforced.”
5. MEP Alfred Sant’s call for drastic change in how Malta addresses corruption
As the only representative from the Labour Party on the panel, PL MEP and former Prime Minister Alfred Sant faced a lot of flak from the audience – which contained several people involved in the activist groups that have sprung up in the wake of Caruana Galizia’s assassination. Faced with questions on the Labour government’s corruption, Sant urged the audience to start viewing corruption in a wider, European context.
“Let’s not be insular about this…there is a corruption problem across Europe, and not just in Malta, and we must look at the problem from a holistic point of view,” he said. “Otherwise, we’ll end up with Nationalist supporters speaking about corruption when there’s a Labour government and vice versa. I spent 20 years of my life chucking out stories of corruption under PN administrations and The Times of Malta just ignored it all. As it stands, you’re basically just telling all Labour voters ‘You’re stupid, man, you have no idea what you’re doing’. That’s not the right way to fight corruption…the way to do it is to bring together a popular majority to fight corruption, and this doesn’t exist in Malta and Europe, which is a serious problem.”
6. MEP Francis Zammit Dimech on modern flirtations with dictatorships
Nationalist MEP Francis Zammit Dimech framed the surge of distrust in the free press in a global context in which strongman leaders are becoming more and more popular, a sign that the worst days of mankind’s history could be set to repeat themselves.
“Let’s not forget that totalitarianism had in the past grown out of a democratic choice spurred by popular distrust in democracy,” he said. “People back then relied on strongman leaders whose fiery rhetoric was more attractive than the stuffiness of democratic etiquette. Now people are flirting with reliving totalitarianism. Facts are becoming optional, while checks and balances, constitutional balances, rules and treaties are accused of being barriers to popular will and of being anti-democratic.”
“Totalitarian regimes would try to whip journalists into compliance and, failing that, eliminate them. The fight for media freedom in Europe is not an academic exercise but a salvage operation that might already be too late. The powerful are exploiting the financial weakness of media, institutional protection of journalists is often non-existent, and journalists are also exposed to violence and physical harm.”
7. Belarussian journalist on how bad it can all get
Belarusian journalist Michal Janczuk urged Maltese society not to grow complacent about the level of freedom of expression, warning such an attitude provides ripe ground for authoritarian leaders to slowly start nibbling away at human rights.
“Freedom is like air; it’s almost invisible when you have it and it’s very easy to forget about it. Yet when the air starts disappearing, you will feel it immediately, and the less air you have, the slower you can move. Please don’t wait till the moment when someone gains control of the air pump and tells you when you’re allowed to breathe, or else you will end up where Belarus is now.”
8. A very lively audience
The debate last night attracted a very mixed group of people, with several youths, elderly people and everyone in between making up the audience. Most were Maltese, although a few EU nationals turned up as well. Academics, activists, journalists, EU nationals, and members of the general public all attended, as did the family of Daphne Caruana Galizia – although these opted to listen rather than participate.
The audience weren’t just casual spectators but took command of the debate, challenging the speakers on some important issues. Journalism student Andrew Borg Carbott, 21, delivered a dose of brutal honesty, urging the audience to break out of their bubbles and realise that several Maltese people have no idea what freedom of speech actually is.
“Journalists sometimes believe freedom of speech is something that only exists in newsrooms, but that’s not true…it exists in people’s homes too,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, the very notion of freedom of speech is such an abstract idea that it doesn’t even exist.”
Partit Demokratiku spokesperson Rosa Borg said many journalists don’t understand the concept of freedom of speech themselves, a concept she described as the right to express yourself so long as you respect others.
MaltaToday co-owner Roger deGiorgio called for a debate on the removal of political media stations, communications lecturer George Mallia warned that the government’s media machine has infiltrated every aspect of the media in the country, and theatre studies lecturer Vicki Cremona said people of goodwill are “disgusted” at the corruption that abounds in both the government and the Opposition.
The liveliness of the debate pleased Michal Janczuk, who remarked that the openness and frankness of the audience proved how freedom of expression is alive and kicking in Malta.
“How I wish we could have a debate like this in my own country,” he said to close off the event.