Some four months after Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination rocked Malta, two experienced European journalists have sounded a strong warning to the island – take the free press and freedom of speech for granted and you risk it all slipping away.
Ahead of a public discussion with Members of the European Parliament on freedom of speech at Europe House in Valletta this afternoon, Lovin Malta sat down with two journalists, laureates of the EP’s prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, who know exactly what they’re talking about. Pauline Adès-Mével’s work with Reporters Without Borders puts her in constant contact with threats to the free press, and Belarusian journalist Michal Janczuk knows firsthand how bad the situation can get.
This is what they had to say:
On Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination
Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in a car bomb last October
Pauline Adès-Mével: “Daphne’s assassination shocked the EU and the world and it remained a shock months after. When she was killed, I don’t think anyone expected there to be such a strong reaction on a political level. Tomorrow’s debate on freedom of speech in Malta is very important for Reporters Without Borders because we want to ensure that the Caruana Galizia case remains a symbol and that all those who work like her don’t end up in that same state”.
“Despite the fear and anxiety, what I have noticed is that Maltese journalists have grown stronger and more determined; they feel as though they have a mission to continue Daphne’s work. A Maltese journalist told me that such a brutal attack on one of them would not stop the rest of them from doing their jobs, and I think they have proved that in the past few months. They want to ensure that Daphne’s voice isn’t lost.”
On today’s worst threats to the free press
A Kremlin ‘online troll factory’ in St Petersburg
Michel Janczuk: “Kremlin propaganda has become a serious force to be reckoned with. They have influenced Belarus, Ukraine and other countries, and their goal is to manipulate people into distrusting the Western journalism system as a whole. The Kremlin propaganda’s main narrative is that everyone is lying, a very effective strategy that no one has found a solution too yet. Facebook, Twitter and even the United States government have started waking up to the problem, but the damage is done and trust in journalism has been severely damaged. This cannot be remedied in months, but will take years.”
Pauline Adès-Mével: “The phenomenon of populism has become a serious problem for the media, in eastern Europe but also in western European countries like Italy. Populist leaders consider journalists to be obstacles, if not enemies, and take every possible opportunity to attack journalists verbally and sometimes even physically. This attitude gives people a carte blanche to act like likewise, such as when the Czech president’s staff physically attacked a journalist at a press conference last weekend. It’s very clear that this action was only possible because the Czech president himself welcomed it.”
On the slippery slope towards press censorship:
Pauline Adès-Mével: “The misuse of defamation laws (SLAPPs) to silence journalists and force them to delete stories has become a huge problem in Malta and elsewhere. Daphne’s assassination served to shed light on the situation of the Maltese media, and Reporters Without Borders and other international organisations are aware that media houses have been targeted by SLAPPs. We will support these journalists and pressure the Maltese authorities to change the legislation.”
Michel Janczuk: “Belarus has had the same president for 24 years, and when power is unmoved for such a long time, it leads to the trivialisation of evil. The level of freedom of speech in Belarus was quite normal when Lukashenko came to power, but it got worse and worse by the year. First we protested because our colleagues were detained, then we protested when our colleagues got beaten up, and then we protested when our colleagues were imprisoned. That is how it happened; gradually and year by year.”
On the dangers of self-censorship:
Michal Janczuk: “All acts of terror against journalists, whether small or large, place strains on the journalistic community. Journalists are normal human beings; we all care about our families and our jobs, so yes, self-censorship does come into play. We question how far we are willing to go to report about corruption and money laundering if we know one of our colleagues was killed for writing about it. It sets a precedent of terror – if something happens once, it can be repeated on a larger scale.
I see self-censorship in Belarus all the time; journalists often tell us how their editors-in-chief don’t allow them to publish some stories out of concern that the secret police might question them and the Minister of Information might issue a warning or close down the paper.”
On the way forward for journalists
Maltese journalists at a protest in the wake of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination
Pauline Adès-Mével: “Journalists must strive to make people trust the industry again and should never give up, even when they see that people despise them. Reporters Without Borders is determined to show the world the importance of the role of investigative journalists in revealing major stories. Whenever journalists bring light on stories by telling the truth, we contribute to raising the awareness of the necessity of independent journalism. As journalists, we must fight together against this general feeling of mistrust in the industry and realise that this fight is a constant one.”
Michel Janczuk: “Paradoxically, independent journalists in Belarus are in a better situation precisely because the regime stigmatises us as oppositional. Journalists and people trust us because of this stigmatisation, because we talk about the gaps within the state media system. Journalists will play a crucial role in reuniting the nation, but even if Belarus does become more democratic, we must continue scrutinising all types of authority and speaking truth to power. The most important thing for every free society to remember is that they must keep fighting for their freedom everyday. If you keep silent when you see the situation slowly deteriorating, then you risk ending up on the same level as Belarus in a couple of years.”