Like other anniversaries, World Press Freedom Day, celebrated today, is an occasion to reflect on the value of press freedom in the world.
The press is an integral part of the structures that make up democratic societies and plays a risky but important role in countries where freedom remains but an alien notion.
Press freedom is not a mere concept that interests journalists alone. It has a deeper meaning that cuts at the heart of democracy.
People have a right to know and journalists have a duty to tell. A free press ensures that democracy is exercised in the best interest of the people it is supposed to serve.
Journalists the world over have a duty to inform, analyse the news, present the facts and act as watchdogs on institutions and governments. But more often than not, this job is hampered by repressive regimes, public officials that suppress information and even violence.
The theme chosen for this year’s World Press Freedom Day is ‘Don’t lock up information: stop jailing journalists’.
More than 500 publishers and journalists were arrested and jailed in 2005 and they number several thousand over the past decade. Dozens of them remain in prison today, serving sentences as long as 20 years.
Arresting journalists is one way of instilling fear. It stifles debate and creates a culture of conformity that suffocates dissent, alternative thought and pluralism.
Journalists in Malta are not being sent to jail or worse still being killed. But there are subtle ways of repressing journalists.
The everyday job of the Maltese press to keep people informed of the facts and the underlying machinations of certain decisions taken is more often than not hampered by the immaturity of our democratic process that still frowns upon an inquisitive and irreverent press.
Libel laws are repressive and often used gratuitously to stop journalists from writing about the issue at stake. They are structured in such a way as to make it easy for public figures to take refuge within the confines of a court of law. And the unprecedented fines awarded in two recent court judgements against sister newspaper MaltaToday are an indication that freedom of the press is still a sticky notion in this country.
Malta is also one of three European Union member states still without a freedom of information act and judging from comments given by Home Affairs Minister Tonio Borg, it is set to remain so for the foreseeable future.
A law that guarantees individuals and journalists the right to access public information could be uncomfortable for politicians. Up to this very day it is incomprehensible how the parents of a child who died at St Luke’s Hospital a couple of years ago are denied access to an internal health department inquiry report even if it could shed some light on their son’s death. It is in cases like this that a freedom of information act takes on an important dimension.
It is a necessary step in the evolvement of our democracy because it will empower individuals with knowledge that is otherwise kept secret by the powers that be.
The same can be said of the need to have a whistleblower act that protects public officials who uncover corruption or wrong doing by their superiors from retribution or discrimination.
But changing laws and enacting new ones is only one step in the long road to have a mature democracy. A change in mentality is required. The press has an important role to play and not just a cosmetic one measured by the number of newspapers in circulation or the number of radios and TV stations on air.
Irrespective of whether politicians, public figures and the commercial community are more appreciative of the role of the press in a modern democracy, journalists have to persevere in their role as watchdogs, biting at the hand of those who would rather lock up information and keep it hidden from the public eye.
The newly formed Journalists’ Committee is a welcome move since it brings together journalists from diverse backgrounds with different problems but all with one aim of upholding the right to freedom of expression. It is a sign of the times, the beginning of an era where the yearning for the truth takes on a new dimension.