COVID-19 has had a significant impact on press freedom and independent journalism in Malta, the EU’s smallest member state. Key issues include a non-transparent system of providing public aid to media outlets, a restrictive attitude toward access to information, and delays in the public inquiry into the murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

The Maltese government allocated close to €1 million in COVID-19 financial aid to news media providers but the process by which these funds were allocated remains opaque as questions and concerns surrounding this funding remain unanswered.

The Shift sent a number of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to Malta Enterprise, the agency overseeing COVID-19 relief funding, asking how the funds were allocated. While the agency confirmed that the amount designated was € 946,000, it refused to divulge any specifics, citing a confidentiality clause that is normally applied to protect commercial interests.

Even before COVID-19 hit, the lack of transparency regarding funding to media, in particular in the form of state advertising, was a subject of concern in Malta. The government has often leveraged withholding or offering publicly funded advertising as a means to exert pressure on the media.

This occurs in a context where those at top levels of the administration had to resign as a result of press revelations on corruption and accusations of involvement in the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017.

Well before COVID-19, the island had long shed its pretence of a quaint and idyllic nation. Malta’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index continues to drop and independent journalists continue to face increasing hostility in the form of vexatious libel suits and SLAPP threats among other forms of harassment, but the advent of COVID-19 has compounded these circumstances further.

It has caused delays in the reporting of the proceedings from the public inquiry into the journalist’s assassination, which has been critical in exposing the rot of corruption that created the climate for her death. And Prime Minister Robert Abela has attempted to use these delays to shut down the inquiry prematurely.

The same government has also used the crisis to limit further public access to information in a country where the prime minister has far too much power and checks and balances are weak, as documented by the Council of Europe and the European Parliament.

Malta, the exception

“Singular” would be the best word to describe Malta’s media landscape as it is the only EU Member State where the two main political parties in the House of Representatives own, control and manage their own media enterprises, which dominate the public sphere. The consequences of such a set-up have, over the years, entrenched a deeply partisan and divisive public discourse, and COVID-19 has only served to highlight just how problematic Malta’s mediascape remains.

Broadcasting in Malta was nationalized in 1975, and because only State media was legal at the time, it was not long before the State broadcaster became synonymous with government propaganda. To counter this, a broadcasting licence was granted to political parties in 1990, following a change in government, with the understanding that political party ownership of the media was a temporary solution and would end when the political debate in Malta matured.

The debate never matured and instead of disseminating information, party-owned stations, newspapers and websites devolved into nothing more than partisan echo chambers. So much so, that the 2020 country report on Malta by the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom, prepared by the European University Institute, found worrying results in areas such as political independence, media funding and editorial autonomy, among others.

Moreover, the State broadcaster continues to reinforce its status as merely a government propaganda tool by appointing a string of government sympathisers to its top positions.

Government and independent media before COVID-19

The government has often leveraged withholding or offering publicly funded advertising as a means to exert pressure on the media. Other more insidious ways in which the government attempts to influence media include offering the editors of nominally independent outlets to host current affairs programmes on State television or by offering them public relations consultancies. At the same time, these programmes were dropped as soon as any media house asked the hard questions about government corruption.

Furthermore, former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, owned commercial outlets that supplied local media houses with paper for their newsprint and in 2017. A Reporters Without Borders report in 2019 said it was “a threat to press freedom”.

Investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia had revealed that Schembri had given kickbacks to ex-Times of Malta Managing Director Adrian Hillman, who later resigned from his post following money laundering allegations. An internal probe by Allied Newspapers, publishers of The Times of Malta, was never made public. A magisterial inquiry is still ongoing.

It is not difficult to see how this tenuous situation was aggravated by COVID-19.

The implications of state aid on the media lanscape

Faced with an abrupt economic downturn in the early months of 2020, a number of independent media houses penned a letter to Prime Minister Robert Abela, asking for financial assistance.

The government followed through on its pledge for financial aid, but the aid package was designed in such a way that it was the politically owned media houses that benefited most.

There has not been transparency about the state aid to independent newsrooms. Several FOI requests submitted by The Shift to government agencies remained unanswered.

Sources have said that editors of select independent media outlets held meetings behind closed doors to negotiate their own separate deals, none of which was made public. The Shift was informed that during these meetings, owners of media houses in Malta discussed other means of government funding through a guaranteed number of adverts over and above COVID-19 funds.

The funds were not distributed equally as reports emerged that political party media got the lion’s share of these funds. What is less clear is whether independent newsrooms had to agree to certain terms in order to receive the funds.

This does not imply a specific impact on newsrooms’ reporting. But it serves to highlight once again larger structural problems in Malta about the lack of transparency when it comes to distributing state funds and state advertising and the general potential for abuse that comes with this, as in any country, and shows the need for continued debate about it. This issue has been noted by the European Commission in this year’s Rule of Law report on Malta.

COVID-19 and access to information

With the public’s health at stake, journalists in Malta were duty-bound to ask questions. After all, Malta is not immune to disinformation campaigns in a media landscape dominated by political interests so access to uncensored information and statistics became essential. The Maltese government believed otherwise.

To begin with, freedom of information requests about the government’s transition plan and risk assessments for easing COVID-19 restrictions over the summer were rejected by the Superintendence for Public Health.

The Maltese government also tried its hand at using COVID-19 as an excuse to censure journalists. On 17 August, Malta saw a surge in daily COVID-19 cases. As the health authorities grappled with the sharp increase in numbers during that weekend, Malta’s prime minister continued to vacation on his yacht. This choice did not go unnoticed especially since it coincided with a decision by the national broadcaster to cut the live airing of journalists’ questions during press conferences on COVID-19.

It was also around this time that a journalist from an independent newsroom began to inquire with the Ministry of Health about the condition of a number of migrants. After being repeatedly ignored, the journalist took to social media to draw attention to the actions of the Minister’s communications aide, who had refused to answer any questions.

When the same journalist sent further requests to the Health Ministry to sit with a scientist for an interview about COVID-19, he was informed that unless he apologized for his social media post, he could expect no further replies from the Ministry. The journalist was blacklisted – a move that the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) registered as a “threat to press freedom”.

COVID-19 and the public inquiry

The public inquiry looking into the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia continues to dominate the public’s attention.

COVID-19 restrictions caused a delay in court proceedings, used by the government to exert pressure on the public inquiry to wrap up its work. This announcement by Prime Minister Robert Abela infuriated civil society, international media organizations, local journalists and the family of Caruana Galizia who reminded the government that an independent inquiry did not need its permission to run its course.

The notion of having the prime minister state that he will allow a “one-time extension” to the board of inquiry to conclude its work resonated through the halls of the Council of Europe prompting special rapporteur Pieter Omtzigt, to pen, not for the first time, a letter calling on Abela to stay away from the inquiry and leave it free of any government interference.

Every week the public inquiry provides insight into how the government dealt with the media, reacted to revelations by the murdered journalist and exposed the close ties between officials at the top levels of government and organized crime.

Journalism in Malta operates within an anomalous and increasingly problematic media landscape. The lasting effects of COVID-19 on the uneasy relationship between the State and major media houses remains to be seen but the indications are that the pandemic has weakened, rather than strengthened, freedom of the press.

The Shift is a Maltese news outlet.

This article was revised on November 25, 2020, with respect to certain passages on the distribution of state aid to the media. The title of the article was also changed.

Any views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of IPI.