A Free Press is indispensable

“Press freedom is the cornerstone of democratic societies. All states, all nations, are strengthened by information, debate and the exchange of opinions. At a time of growing discourse of mistrust and delegitimisation of the press and journalism, it is essential that we guarantee freedom of opinion through the free exchange of ideas and information based on factual truth.” 

I couldn’t have put it better than Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, and her quote is extremely relevant to what is happening in Malta. The killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia has apparently not been enough for some. We see a widespread campaign of denigration, threats and intimidation directed at journalists, bloggers and opinion-makers, not to mention civil activists.

I am amazed that so-called journalists on both sides of the political spectrum and a considerable swathe of educated people, some of whom are acquaintances or even friends of mine, tolerate and, indeed, support such a campaign. Their excuse?  Because they claim that the people being attacked are not objective, that they are in reality politically affiliated to one side or the other, and that they are “biċċa” journalists and bloggers.

Well, they are wrong, wrong, wrong. A functional democracy requires far more than just an institution that allows everyone to vote every few years. “Critically, it requires citizens to be well-informed, and we need to protect democratic institutions from corruption,” says Rohini Pande, Henry J. Heinz II Professor of Economics at Yale University and a former senior professor at the Harvard Kennedy School.

I am amazed that so-called journalists on both sides of the political spectrum and a considerable swathe of educated people tolerate and, indeed, support such a campaign.

“A vigorous free press is necessary for an effective democracy,” Rohini says. “Politicians can see it as an unwelcome distraction—but without it, they’re flying blind, and the country will end up paying the price.” She should know. Her mother is Mrinal Pande, one of India’s leading journalists, who was recently accused of sedition for reporting on a major farmers’ protest.

Many people I know seem to have difficulty understanding why free and independent media contribute to good governance. Pippa Norris, in her book The Role of the Free Press in Promoting Democratization, Good Governance and Human Development, has done a large-N cross-sectional comparison of the impact of press freedom on multiple indicators of democracy and good governance.

Norris’s findings support the hypothesis that where the media functions effectively as a watchdog, a civic forum and an agenda-setter it helps to promote democracy, good governance and thus human development. The free press is significantly associated with levels of democracy, irrespective of the indicator of democracy used. The impact of media liberalisation was the most consistent predictor of democracy and was even stronger than wealth.

Further, countries where much of the public has access to the free press usually have greater political stability, rule of law, government efficiency in the policy process, regulatory quality, and the least corruption. The role of the Press in holding the corridors of power accountable cannot be overstated.

The Brookings/World Bank WorldWide Governance Indicators do not yield a flattering picture of Malta’s governance over the last three years, with all six measures deteriorating. The Sustainable Governance Indicators published by the German BertelsmannStiftung give us a ranking of 33 for democracy and 27 for governance, out of 41 European countries. The ND-Gain Index gives us a ranking of 23 for governance, making us 11th out of 27 EU countries. The Basle Institute Index puts us at the highest risk of AML in the whole of the EU, the next worst EU country being Hungary 28 ranks down.

It now seems to have become some people’s hobby to question the reliability of such indices, on the ground that they are not always based on objective criteria. Of course, in the past these same people had no problem with these same criteria and used to quote them when the indices were more favourable to Malta.

A free press is indispensable for facilitating good governance and transparent societies, and “acts as a voice for the public and as a watchdog. It provides checks and balances and holds leaders accountable to the public,” according to Dr. Hanif Hassan Ali Al Qassim, Chairman of the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue.

Yet, according to the World Press Freedom Index, released by Reporters Without Borders, Malta ranked 81st out of 180 countries last year in terms of its freedom of the press. Being in the company of El Salvador and Hong Kong is indeed sad. If the press is undermined, its ability to investigate and expose corruption, bribery, mismanagement, waste, embezzlement and other vices in democratic societies might just be truncated.

Of course, not all the press is accurate; some outlets are more professional than others. Some journalists are honest, whereas personal agendas hijack others’ work. But they should all be tolerated and, if necessary, rebutted rather than repressed. Nobody denies that the media have obligations to society, owing people the truth and objectivity.  Neither is it the case that the media are exempt from codes of ethics and professional conducts to safeguarding public interest.

Of course, not all the press is accurate; some outlets are more professional than others. But they should all be tolerated.

The nadir to which we are sinking is amply evident from the hate speech, bigotry and fear that are being weaponised to attack journalists and social media players, often compounded by inflammatory and smear campaigns.

I do not propose to answer the question about the dogs that didn’t bark and why the State’s institutions in our society didn’t function effectively, or not at all, over the Panama Papers and corruption scandals. Let every man with a modicum of conscience answer that for himself. But the saga tells us much about the need for an estate, a profession, an institution ─ we’ll probably never quite agree what to call it ─ that exists independently of the other main centres of power in society.

Anton Cassar, the editor of l-orizzont and my mentor in my journalism days in the early Sixties, introduced me to the term The Fourth Estate, and I was very proud to be a member of it.

Most journalists do not respond to a party whip, make the compromises necessary in politics or answer to shareholders. They are not bound by the confidentiality agreements that bind others. They are careless of causing inconvenience or embarrassment. They don’t have to win votes. They can write things – about the economy, say, or the environment – which may need saying but which are unsayable by politicians. They come from a different place.

This freedom is a fundamental one. There are plenty of writers, jurists and political philosophers who consider it the first and foremost of our freedoms. The first amendment of the American constitution is probably the most robust expression and enshrinement of the primacy of free speech in an open society.

The imperfections of the press are not the point when considering its freedom. A free press is not there for the benefit of a group called journalists. It’s primarily there for the benefit of ordinary citizens. 

Note: Malta will be launching an anti-SLAPP bill in the coming days, together with a set of legislative instruments aimed at the protection of journalists and defending media freedom. 

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Albert Soiteri
Albert Soiteri
2 years ago

A media that is free from political obligations and pregudice is essential.
Journalists who use their status to impose their political, social and economic agenda are like drain rats and should be scourched out of the profession. Irresponsible, libellous bloggers should not be treated as irresponsible libellous journalists, but as abusive, anti-democracy mafiosi.

Last edited 2 years ago by Albert Soiteri