Malta did not fare too highly in a Europe-wide study on media pluralism and media freedom, with medium-to-high risks to Maltese media identified in most of the sectors under study.
The 2020 Media Pluralism Monitor, carried out by the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CMPF), confirmed mounting harassment against journalists, increasing economic uncertainty for media outlets and the online sphere’s failure to reinforce pluralism.
The report on Malta paints a grim picture: in all four main categories highlighted by the CMPF – basic protections, market plurality, political independence and social inclusiveness – Malta’s score is worse than the EU average.
The CMPF brings together academics from across Europe, and accordingly, Malta’s report was drawn up by Louiselle Vassallo, a resident academic at the University of Malta’s Faculty for Media and Knowledge Sciences.
Poor market plurality
The report ranks each country on a percentage scale in various categories, according to the perceived risk: the higher the percentage, the worse a country performs.
Malta performed worst when it came to media plurality, where its 69% score indicates a high risk. The European average stood at 64%.
The main concerns were the concentration of news media and within online platforms, though in part due to a lack of data. No data is collected on the market share of print or online media, and there is no enforcement of any competition rules online.
The viability of the Maltese media sector is also deemed at risk (63% score). Though very little data on revenues is publicly available, general feedback has been clear that ad revenue has decreased in line with a increase spending on digital platforms and an accompanying shift to advertising on social media.
The study also highlights that there was little to prevent commercial and owner influence on editorial content. And while the Institute of Maltese Journalists seeks to represent journalists, it cannot be considered a trade union.
High political interference
Almost equally poor is Malta’s performance on political independence, with a score of 67%, far above the European average of 47%.
Political parties’ extensive media interests is a key contributor, though the study also highlights that Keith Schembri, the chief of staff to former PM Joseph Muscat, had supplied media houses through his commercial interests
Additionally, the study notes, the general view was that the public broadcaster was effectively a mouthpiece of the government of the day.
The report also highlights that while no subsidies are provided to private media – with the exception of the national broadcaster – the state may effectively subsidise newsrooms through the booking of adverts. However, this is unregulated, giving way to possible selectivity.
No media access provided to minorities
When it comes to social inclusiveness, Malta received a score of 64%, representing an elevated medium risk. The score is considerably higher than the European average of 52%.
But Malta’s score would likely have been higher had it not been one of Europe’s smallest countries. Its small size helped it achieve a positive score in one of the subcategories, namely access to media for local communities.
On the other hand, however, access to media for minorities was practically non-existent, earning Malta’s worst score at 97%.
With an absence of legally-recognised minorities, there is no provision of airtime, and the study argues that a lack of visibility did not help achieve acceptance or integration.
It also led to marginalisation which was propagated by a racist narrative, especially on social media, while populist and nationalistic statements by politicians received undue prominence.
Malta also scores poorly on access to media for people with disabilities, given a lack of any obligation to make media accessible to them, and on access to media for women. Women, the study found, were underrepresented in a number of areas within the media, including on the boards of media houses.
Malta’s best performance was in the field of basic protection, with a score of 36%, though again this was higher than the European average of 33%.
‘Chilling effect’ of Daphne assassination persists
The country performed reasonably well when it came to the protection of freedom of expression. However, the study notes that the chilling effect of the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia was still being felt, even though some media houses have since been rising to the occasion.
But the protection of the right to information remains lacking, as media houses routinely face difficulties when making freedom of information requests. Additionally, the protection of whistle-blowers remains weak, with the study highlighting the rejection of whistle-blower status for former Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit official Jonathan Ferris.
Malta also received a middling score on the standards and protection concerning the journalistic profession, with the study arguing it was safe to say that the profession felt threatened. While no legal obstacles existed to the profession, working conditions for journalists have been negatively affected by the decay of media’s business model and by the digital transformation.