When international and local NGOs, journalists and activists speak of a decline in freedom of speech in Malta, some people stare at them, perplexed and bewildered, wonderingⁿ0 what they’re on about. Doesn’t everyone in Malta say whatever he/she wants to say? Doesn’t everyone in Malta write whatever he/she wants to write?
Freedom of expression is the right of an individual or a group to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds and through any media, free from state interference and censorship. It is broader than freedom of speech as it also encompasses nonverbal or non-written expression, such as dance, mime, art, photography and other non-verbal action. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right as stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Not only is the state obliged to refrain from censorship or interference of expression but it has positive obligations to proactively stimulate and foster freedom of expression (as opposed to merely refraining from interference).
Freedom of speech comes with responsibilities, and does have restrictions and limits, such as hate speech and incitement. Restrictions can also be justified if they protect a specific public interest, for example national security, public order and public health.
Freedom of expression (and accountability) ranking in Malta has plummeted to the lowest figure in a decade, according to the Worldwide Governance Indicators issued by the World Bank .
Press freedom is intimately tied to, and an excellent gauge of, freedom of expression. Malta has also taken a terrible nose dive in press freedom over the last few years, and this has been noted by several international relevant NGOs.
Reporters without Borders compile a Press Freedom ranking amongst 180 countries annually using the following criteria – pluralism, media independence, media environment and self-censorship, legislative environment, transparency, infrastructure, and abuses. Over the last two years, Malta has dropped from 46th to 77th rank.
This is hardly surprising. The assassination of Malta’s best known anti-corruption journalist two years ago, and the subsequent failure of the state to apprehend the criminal mastermind makes Malta a dangerous environment for any journalist. Journalists are faced with the choice of asking the right questions, and putting their lives on the line, or else self-censoring to ensure their personal safety.
Malta must be the only country where Ministers conspire with large firms to serve journalists with a SLAPP. A SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) is a lawsuit that is intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defence that even the largest newsrooms in Malta cannot afford.
Amnesty International underlines that “Public officials should tolerate more criticism than private individuals. So defamation laws that stop legitimate criticism of a government or public official, violate the right to free speech.” Yet Malta must also be the only country whose Prime Minister is suing a slain journalist!
There are several other attacks on Press Freedom in Malta that one can read about on the Mapping Media Freedom Site, including several recent attacks on The Shift News, a news portal that focuses mainly on holding power to account and on press freedom. Mapping Media Freedom identifies threats, violations and limitations faced by members of the press throughout European Union member states. The reports listed are far from exhaustive, and the alarming press freedom situation in Malta is on the radar of both the UN Human Rights Council as well as the Council of Europe.
Of course, government exponents say that “Freedom of press in Malta is very healthy“, but nothing can be further from the truth. And we would be silly not to realise this and stand up to be counted, to ensure that our right to freedom of expression is not trampled upon.
Freedom of expression is one of our most precious rights. Our individual liberty, most of all our other human rights, and democracy depend on this freedom. We need to protect this right at all costs.