A consultation meeting was held today, called by the Committee of Experts the government appointed 13 months ago to make recommendations on how to implement recommendations by the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry to protect media freedom in Malta.
Let me just briefly remind you how we got here.
Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered on 16 October 2017. It would later be shown that she was killed because of her work as a journalist. The people she exposed continued to enjoy impunity, creating an atmosphere of lawlessness that empowered her assassins. I realise you know this. But I put it here because Daphne’s murder is both the origin of this debate on reforming the media in Malta and, paradoxically, a climax of decades of abuse, intimidation, financial, legal, and psychological violence inflicted on Daphne Caruana Galizia. None of that violence was considered dramatic enough to justify a discussion on how to change laws to let her work without fear of dying. Killing her was necessary before we would even start talking about this.
Then came an inquiry into her killing which documented the dangers that journalists are in when working in this country, dangers so grave they caused one journalist to be killed. That fact is pregnant with the implication that the fate of all journalists cannot be separated from the faith of the one.
The inquiry concluded its work in July 2021 and the government did nothing for months until the Parliamentary opposition proposed bills to implement the inquiry’s recommendations which the government shot down. They needed to look ‘positive’ so they hired this Committee of Experts to look at things, starting, the government said, with a review of very specific aspects of the reform recommended by the inquiry that the government wanted to deal with first.
The chairman of the committee of experts, Michael Mallia, who also had chaired the Daphne inquiry, explained at today’s consultation meeting that in June 2022 they sent to the government their report making a list of recommendations narrowly on the aspects that the government had prioritised. For 3 months they heard nothing.
Then, like rain from an unclouded sky, minister Jonathan Attard called the experts and told them he would be publishing changes to the law that would adopt an impressive 87% of the recommendations which they made. The experts were delighted.
Until Jonathan Attard called a press conference to announce the publication of the Bills and, along with the rest of us, the experts the government itself had appointed read for the first time what the government had decided.
It was true that only 13% of their proposals had been dropped. What stunned them was which 13. Imagine being invited for a Christmas turkey with all the trimmings dinner. Only to find out they dropped just one item from the menu: the turkey. Now you’re sitting down for a Christmas dinner of brussels sprouts and bread sauce which may be someone’s idea of paradise but I’ll count myself out.
Chairman Michael Mallia today said he and the rest of his committee felt the heat of the backlash for having failed to publicly consult before submitting their proposal. There indeed was a lot of noise at the time. God knows my voice could be heard above the din. But any criticism of the committee of experts would have been misguided. Clearly, as explained by Chairman Mallia today, the committee of experts never had any form of authority on determining the content of the draft laws. They were no better than lobbyists. They had no more access than you and I might have had. The government treated them as they treated everyone else, unworthy of being actively consulted.
The government felt the backlash of the absence of consultation as well but they were not going to admit they were in the wrong. Instead, incredibly to me, they dumped the failure to consult on the committee of experts. They sent them back to consult and return with a revised set of recommendations.
What is even more incredible to me is that the committee of experts, no doubt out of their genuine desire to secure improvements to media freedom in this country, accepted to act as an outsourced contractor of the government, replacing the minister, his staff, and the national authorities in their core function of listening to what the press and civil society have to say about changing laws that profoundly impact them and the entire functioning of democracy.
Frankly, good will is no excuse. For the committee conducting consultations today has absolutely no idea which 13% of its next set of recommendations are going to be dropped without so much as an explanation by the minister. What’s worse is that now as they proceed to impose utterly ineffective changes to the law or changes that make it even harder to practice this profession in this country, they will be able to claim that the changes they are adopting are the product of consultation.
Shit, man. This is consultation they did not even bother to attend. Minister Jonathan Attard sent a message to the meeting to say he found out about it too late to shift his other appointments. And yet, surely, the government is bigger than the minister. One of his drafters, advisors, legal consultants, and in house researchers could have taken the bother to see what civil society and journalists working in the industry had to say about laws that are supposed to prevent the broad-daylight car-bombing of one of them brave enough and competent enough to cause some embarrassment to someone bribing some government minister.
The fact is the government is happy to see us waste our days chattering to each other about what the protection of the media should look like only to do as they please when they come to it.
There are European directives in the pipeline that if adopted could, in theory, impose on the government material improvements to the environment in which journalists must work. But this government is extremely skilled at adopting European directives into transposed domestic law burdened with some detail that ensures it does not work. Consider the Whistle-blower Protection Act that is long enough and elaborate enough to look like it complies with the European directive but is burdened by the simple detail that anyone trying to get whistle-blower status risks prison just for asking.
For heaven’s sake look at the bills they published without consultation last September. There’s much flowery drafting about how important journalism is for our democracy but they parked it in section 2 of the Constitution, that dead place which functions like the “Free Parking” box on your Monopoly Board. It’s fucking useless. It protects no one. It cannot be cited in court in a case against anyone abusing or suppressing media freedom. It is a letter to Father Christmas.
In the meantime, the same changes that are supposed to improve media freedom sanction the government to start the surveillance of journalists – ostensibly for their safety – without any form of extra-governmental oversight (such as judges or a cross-party Parliamentary committee) and without even the journalist knowing that they’re being watched by the order of some government secret agent or, please do believe me when I say this, the fucking military. This is iron curtain stuff.
The changes they proposed warn civil servants of grave consequences should they inform journalists, because of course we want to scare into silence any witnesses to wrongdoing. And then they speak about protecting whistle-blowers, when they clearly do not mean it.
To shut us up they are proposing what they’re calling anti-SLAPP laws. As someone who has been at the wrong end of a few of those I would love the opportunity to tell the government to their face that I don’t appreciate being treated like an idiot. The so-called anti-SLAPP law only works if the journalist has entered a plea in the jurisdiction where the original case against them was filed. Which, if you’re being sued in Arizona as Daphne had been, is the fucking problem, isn’t it?
They also pretend to protect journalists by inserting a provision on face value dismissal of libel suits not if they’re vexatious or intimidatory or clearly intended to strategically suppress public participation, but only if they are “manifestly unfounded”. As if anyone would ever file a “manifestly unfounded” case against a journalist if they want to scare the bejezuz out of them. They would rather pin their case on some genuine error to SLAPP the journalist into silence.
So, the draft on the agenda, which has been on the agenda since last September, is a mess. It also leaves out major issues identified by the inquiry that are just as central to ensure journalists are protected and free to do their job. The government hasn’t even started talking about reforming freedom of information laws, how to regulate government spending with the media, how to refine media ownership rules to free the airwaves from partisan propaganda masquerading as news, how to properly protect whistle-blowers including, and especially, sources working within government, and how to provide, regulate and oversee half-way decent public broadcasting.
None of that is on the agenda yet. The committee of experts seems optimistic that these issues can be dealt with at some point in the future. Come off it, won’t you? Here we are almost 6 years since Daphne was killed debating the first chapter of reforms that were already late when she was still alive. If we had them in a timely fashion, she’d have been protected from the toxic environment of this dysfunctional polity.
Is the complete absence of any urgency not amazing to you who reads this because you’re still in shock that a journalist was killed here? The committee of experts took the time today to present an analysis of the bills published last September painstakingly pointing out the glaring gap on the dinner table where a turkey was supposed to be. I know for a fact because I have seen it, that this presentation was ready last October.
That’s four months in which fuck all happened. I’m not criticising the committee of experts for this though they might feel I am. Because this is not their job. The government still has responsibilities in this country. When the inquiry recorded failures of the state, almost invariably that amounted to failures of the government. They are failures they did nothing about in the months and years that ended on 16 October 2017 and – here’s the rub, right? – they’ve done absolutely nothing about since.
And then they have the audacity to blame the committee of experts they hired for that. Now that’s a committee I would not want to be part of, to be the whipping boy receiving the flak from irate journalists and civil society activists for the failures of the government.
Failures. That’s the wrong word. It suggests that the government has at least the intention to adopt meaningful changes to the law that have the effect of protecting media freedom and, through no fault of their own, are failing to fulfil their intention. That’s not what’s happening here.
If the government truly considered the free press as a pillar of democracy it would itself, as another better resourced, better established, pillar of democracy, sit down with the media and frankly debate on the back of some white paper a draft reform we would all agree would go some way towards the declared objective: that journalists are free to do their job in this country.
They won’t do that. And more fools us for continuing to hope that might change.