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Ossigeno Conference: Malta and “the journalism which disturbs nobody”

Many problems were highlighted on the 6th December 2017 at the University of Valletta. Among the speakers, Ricardo Gutierrez (EFJ) and the Maltese journalist Herman Grech

In Malta, doing journalism which deals with news unappreciated by those in power is dangerous. Very dangerous. This was shown by the explosives attack on the 16th October 2017 which caused the horrific death of the noted journalist and blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia, 53, a reporter exposed for years to serious threats, a voice which for some time published exclusive reports very critical of some leading figures of the executive.

But how dangerous is journalist activity and for whom in this little republic which since 2004 has been part of the European Union? Few local journalists want to reply to this question. That terrible assassination, executed with terrorist technique and effect, has created a climate of fear and loss and has discredited the entire country, in particular the Government accused of having been incapable of adequately protecting a reporter so exposed to the risk of being killed.

Those who accept to discuss publicly these issues say that, on this island, investigative journalism is accepted neither by the politicians nor by public opinion and add that journalists find themselves faced with an impossible mission.

This is the picture that emerged from the contributions at the seminar organised by Ossigeno per l’Informazione on the 6th December at the University of Malta, under the title Assault on journalism. Focus on the pressures exerted on journalists, in the aftermath of the killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia. The contributions of the speakers follow below.

Herman Grech, Maltese journalist of the on-line edition of the Times of Malta, explained that in his country, “few people understand what is journalism”, which is a real problem of “literacy”. The Maltese confuse journalism with political propaganda (read the contribution of Herman Grech).

Alberto Spampinato, president of Ossigeno, highlighted above all a serious institutional failing: that of a country of the European Union which is unable to protect a journalist so famously exposed to the risk of being killed, who had publicly registered and to the authorities themselves the risks which she was running, a journalist persecuted through disproportionate legal action following her denouncing public figures. An institutional failing as had been highlighted a few months earlier also in the Council of Europe platform for the protection of journalism and the safety of journalists. It is a failing because democratic countries have the obligation to protect journalists and to create safer and favourable conditions so that they can work fully independently and in safe conditions.

But what has happened in Malta, Spampinato added, reveals also the weakness of Maltese journalism which doesn’t have organisations of collective representation able to establish solidarity with whomever is threatened nor does it engage to protect  those who publish critical information of relevant public interest. In Italy, Spampinato concluded, journalism, fortunately, has these representative organs, has an attentive Observatory such as Ossigeno, and also because of this the public authorities protect with armed escorts numerous journalists (currently there are 20, some having been under protection for over ten years).

“In Italy journalists have big problems, many of them receive threats and abuse, threatening litigation and other unjust treatment and the authorities don’t do everything which would be necessary”. But – Spampinato concluded – “in Italy Daphne Caruana Galizia would have had strong protection from the State and would not have been killed”.

Ricardo Gutierréz, Secretary-General of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), reminded the audience what are the principal foundations of press freedom; the law, the treaties and the institutions which defend the exercise of the right to gather, receive and publish topical information of public interest. He underlined how important it was for journalists to act collectively to defend their independence, the autonomy and their safety, because solidarity is an important factor.

“But solidarity, he added, is not spontaneous; it is necessary to construct it, it needs to be organised, to create associations and groups.” It is necessary also to have independent institutions capable of settling in a rapid, just and cost-effective way the inevitable controversies which can arise between newspapers and journalists on the one hand and readers and users of  radio and television news on the other in order to rectify incorrect, erroneous or false information and thus improve the quality of information without damaging freedom of expression. The solutions, Gutierrez continued, “are already to hand: there needs to be created in every country a Press Council (that is a self-regulating press body) and each country must invest public funds to support investigative journalism”.

Other contributors: The seminar was opened by the Dean of the Faculty, Professor Andrew Azzopardi. Assistant Professor Marilyn Clark of the Department of Psychology illustrated recent research (read) conducted by her at a European level commissioned by the Council of Europe, to assess the psychological effect of the undue pressures exerted upon journalists to influence their work. 940 journalists from a variety of countries replied to her questionnaire. The responses indicate that the undue interference, the threats and the intimidations are a daily reality which many journalists have to face up to. Self-censorship is one of the commonest consequences of such pressures.

The Ossigeno Project in the Universities – The seminar has been organised by Ossigeno per l’Informazione together with the Faculty of Social Well-being of the University of Malta. It took place in the context of the international project which Ossigeno is carrying out together with the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) based in Leipzig. This project is supported by the European Commission. Ossigeno has the task of promoting meetings in European universities, for the study of and reflections on press freedom. With these initiatives the establishment is encouraged of specific teaching courses on press freedom and training courses to produce competent observers able to recognise and analyse the most serious violations of this fundamental right; from intimidations to threats, to retaliations, to assassinations. The meeting in Valletta was conducted similarly to those organised, also in 2017, at the Complutense University in Madrid and at the University of Ghent in Belgium and in preceding years in other European and Italian universities.

MF-ASP (mlf)

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