I want to join the chorus of support for the editor of Malta Today, Matthew Vella, who is being bullied by the owners of the Steward hospitals for doing his job as a journalist and letting us know, as best as it is possible to know, who is making money on the back of our healthcare.
Perhaps in some cultures providing health care is a profit-making exercise, privileged by secrecy and oriented towards the interests of the owners of beds rather than the people lying in them. Here we used to think that healthcare was the most public of public interests. Some of us still think so. Matthew Vella serves the public interest by digging into the opaque ownership structures of the only hospital in Gozo and two of the hospitals in Malta.
Is it not an outrage in itself that the bullies who own Steward Healthcare thought that the best way to shut Matthew Vella up was to ‘report’ him to the government?
Investors, as no doubt the owners of the three hospitals imagine themselves to be, expect consistent behaviour from a government. They would have read the playbook of the conversations between the owner of Henley and Partners and the pair running the country at the time, “Keith”, and his deputy, “the prime minister”. They would have known that the Maltese government colludes, as a matter of policy, with corporate bullies to shut down independent journalism in Malta.
They would have seen the farce of the so-called “anti-SLAPP” law the government is proposing ostensibly to protect journalists from corporate bullying, imposing on local journalists the obligation to enter a plea in any court anywhere in the world if they are to be even eligible to be considered for the protection given by the law.
Matthew Vella has stepped on some powerful toes. They can do much more than send a letter to the government complaining about the work of a journalist. They have access to legal resources, particularly in the United States. They won’t have to prove that the case concerns American interests to the extent that justifies filing a case against Matthew Vella in the United States, before Matthew Vella has to scramble enough money to file a defence in response.
That’s enough of a threat to shut up anyone working for any news organisation in Malta. Filing a response in the US, if a SLAPP suit is on its way to stop us knowing about who’s making money from patients in three Maltese hospitals, would probably cost more than Malta Today could ever hope to afford.
You see, these must be things Matthew Vella thought about when he heard that Steward were complaining to the government about his work as a journalist. They must be things his employers thought about as well. There’s no suggestion this bullying would scare them into retracting or toning down their reporting. But you don’t have to be frozen to shudder under the chilling effect. The people staying up at night should be the ones with things to hide, not the ones exposing them.
Jonathan Attard, the justice minister, yesterday sounded like he was saying the right thing when he said that it was “unacceptable” for a corporate bully to expect the government to “investigate” a journalist for doing his job. Wrapped in that phrase he used – “non-starter” – was the sound of the unspoken retort: ‘where did these people think they were running hospitals? Pyongyang?’
But scratch beneath that surface. Saying the right thing on behalf of the freedom of the press is a good start. It’s certainly far more than Joseph Muscat and Owen Bonnici and Edward Zammit Lewis would ever go. What really matters, however, is doing the right thing for freedom of expression. The justice minister can do far more than talk. He can legislate to mitigate, to the extent possible, eliminate, the threats from corporate bullies and to do so on legislative, not merely a policy basis.
There is likely no love lost between Jonathan Attard and Steward Health Care. The government is locked in a boardroom war with them and would like nothing better than a good excuse to boot them out. But it’s not easy because in the process of using their executive powers to throw out Steward, they risk the fallout from the public getting a better understanding of the scale of the mess Joseph Muscat made and that would hurt Robert Abela, his successor and erstwhile number two.
Steward are a legacy of the deals Joseph Muscat and Konrad Mizzi made. There’s likely no further opportunity for profiteering behind the public’s back. Now Steward are just a tumour they don’t know how to excise without bleeding to death.
Perhaps the greatest irony is that ministers appear to be excited about the prospect of Adrian Delia winning his lawsuit against the government where he’s asking the court to declare the Steward concession unlawful. Jonathan Attard yesterday may have been just as motivated for defending Matthew Vella out of respect for media freedom as he was out of antipathy for the unfathomable owners of Steward Health Care.
But that’s not good enough, is it? It’s no media freedom if we can only expect the government’s protection when we’re reporting on people they don’t like. Would Jonathan Attard have said the same about “non-starters” if Matthew Vella’s investigation was into Pilatus, Electrogas, Satabank, or any of the other monsters that at the time the government would not happen to be in disagreement with?
True media freedom is unaffected by the government’s moods, likes and dislikes, or the extent of familiarity between ministers and the subject of a journalist’s investigation. Yesterday’s remarks by the minister are no reason to think anything’s changed. After all the expressions of solidarity, Matthew Vella and Malta Today must alone face the risks of the unfair consequences of his accurate reporting in the public interest. That’s where they where yesterday. It’s where they’ll be tomorrow.