Editorial | Sunday, 24 January 2010

Bookmark and Share

Muzzling the messenger

They say that history repeats itself, and nowhere is this more visible than in the domineering attitude assumed by various administrations of government towards the independent press in Malta.
Even today, six years into our nation’s great European adventure, it is evident that certain government appointees still suffer from the delusion that they are owed some form of ‘allegiance’ from sections of the media. And when their expectations are somehow defied, their reactions are often (to say the least) peremptory and uncouth.
Consider the following, highly typical example that occurred this very week. On Wednesday, our midweek newspaper gave front-page prominence to a limited liability company called ‘ARMS’ (Automated Management Revenue Service) – set up by the IT ministry to collect outstanding debts owed to the water and electricity corporations – which developed a software fault affecting its calculations of the new bills.
It goes without saying that the goings-on within any such State-owned company – founded using public funds, for the express purpose of collecting money due to the same government – is a matter of public concern: especially if it involves potentially flawed bills which the same public is now expected to pay.
And yet, it fell to this newspaper to reveal the fact that the new bills issued by this company may have been affected by a software fault; and for the record, MaltaToday sought the comments and reactions of the same ministry before publishing the story last Wednesday.... to no avail.
It is worth remembering also that, in the four days since its publication, there has not been any official denial or even comment on the part of the relevant ministry.
As things stand, the only ‘reaction’ to have filtered down to us at all were two emails, published in today’s edition, instructing two separate private advertising agencies to cancel a series of adverts pre-booked by the same ministry in all newspapers owned by MediaToday (which includes Illum, our Maltese language sister paper that had nothing to do with the story on Wednesday).
The cancelled adverts were for ARMS itself, and – if any further evidence of the retaliatory nature of this decision were even needed– also for the Malta Transport Authority (ADT), whose only relation to ARMS is that it falls under the aegis of the same ministry.
Incidentally, these instructions were received on Thursday: the day after the ARMS story appeared in our newspaper. Readers are of course entitled to interpret this sequence of events as they deem fit; but for what it is worth, our interpretation is that the MaltaToday stable of newspapers has been penalised for the grave crime of trying to do its job properly.
Admittedly, some might argue that a government ministry or department is free to spend its own advertising budget as it chooses, and that a newspaper which probes secretive government companies should not expect to benefit from the same government’s largesse.
But this argument overlooks a significant detail: that the advertising budget of a government ministry is not its own at all.
Unlike private companies, the government administers public money on behalf of the country as a whole. It is for this reason that government adverts are subject to scrutiny for political bias by the Broadcasting Authority; and it is for this reason too that the government is obliged – if not legally, at least morally – not to treat public money as part of its own arsenal of weaponry, to be used against its real or perceived ‘enemies’.
All things told, it is disappointing (though not exactly surprising) that the government would resort to such bullying tactics in this and other cases. But at the same time, it is not as though we haven’t walked down this particular road before.
In 2004 – the same year that Lawrence Gonzi was appointed PN leader, and subsequently Prime Minister – there was a transparent attempt to drive MaltaToday out of business altogether, when the entire PN administrative council, egged on by former secretary-general Joe Saliba, filed a vexatious libel suit against the newspaper over a single editorial.
Incredibly, it seems the erstwhile ‘champions of democracy’ are blind to the irony of their own actions. They see no similarity between the outrageous political censorship used against them in the days of Xandir Malta – and against which they rightly fought tooth and nail, in the distant 1980s – and the equally outrageous measures they themselves now use to muzzle what they perceive to be a critical section of the press.
Placed in the context of a veritable upsurge in censorship of all forms and hues in the past five years alone – including bans on stage-plays and Carnival costumes, criminal charges against student editors, as well as a wholesale deterioration in press freedoms (as evidenced by the findings of Freedom House survey 2009) – it is hard not to come away with the impression that the present government, for all its talk of openness and accountability, is effectively undermining Freedom of Expression in Malta.
Needless to add, MaltaToday will persist in its efforts to bring to public attention the news and stories that are of direct and immediate public concern: regardless of the abusive commercial pressures so shamelessly exerted against us.
After all, they didn’t stop us then, and they certainly won’t stop us now.

Any comments?
If you wish your comments to be published in our Letters pages please click button below.
Please write a contact number and a postal address where you may be contacted.



Download MaltaToday Sunday issue front page in pdf file format


Muzzling the messenger

Copyright © MediaToday Co. Ltd, Vjal ir-Rihan, San Gwann SGN 9016, Malta, Europe
Managing editor Saviour Balzan | Tel. ++356 21382741 | Fax: ++356 21385075 | Email