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Apologies in advance for the gratuitous stream of commentary over the last couple of days, but there are certain things that must be said and this kind of column is the only way to do it. I also wanted to point out that I am aware that this particular piece is a few days late, but given the sensitive nature of the subject matter, I wanted to coherently form my thoughts at length before writing up a proper column about it.

Throughout last week, Michael Kaden, owner, editor, and presenter of Bonġu, was the first journalist to critically report an unassuming press release published on Malta Today, the Times of Malta, and The Malta Independent. For the purposes of this column, here’s a reproduction of Kaden’s piece to give you some quick context.

“Just days after Christmas, Malta has been gifted with a ‘lobby group’ of local media owners who seek to ‘protect and promote’ their interests.

Allied Newspapers (Times of Malta), MediaToday (MaltaToday and Illum) and Standard Publications (The Malta Independent) have formed what they call a ‘lobby group’ to ‘protect and promote’ their interests – together with the Nationalist Party and the governing Labour Party.

The ‘Association of Media Owners’ includes both party media houses, PN’s Media.Link and Labour’s Sound Vision Print, as well as Union Print which is owned by Labour’s General Workers’ Union.

In a statement on Friday, AMO said it is “open to all those print and digital media organisations backed by a full-time newsroom of at least seven journalists and three media workers”.

While this arbitrary rule even excludes Lovin Malta from participating in the association, it remains questionable which other media house would consider ‘lobbying’ together with media owned by or closely linked to the government party – the very counterpart in any serious lobbying activity.

Yet the association claims it will “aim to establish and maintain dialogue with governments, institutions, business organisations, international agencies and accredited experts”.

“This is how the government coerces and co-opts major media organisations like The Times of Malta and The Malta Independent into its systems, structures and regulations”, author and journalist Mark Camilleri commented the announcement on Friday.

AMO also stated it wants to “establish contacts, liaise and conclude agreements of cooperation with other similar institutions or associations”.

It remains to be seen how international organisations will react to the unusual composition of the association’s members.

Bonġu has asked all participating media houses and political parties to provide its newsroom with the full AMO statement and information about the persons forming the association’s executive.

There has been no reply at the time of publishing.”

The press release announcing the new association was published on 29 December by Malta Today and The Malta Independent. The Times published it a day later. While Malta Today and The Malta Independent published an identical copy of the press release, the Times added a self-conscious little disclaimer at the end of theirs, presumably because of the flak that both Malta Today and The Malta Independent were already getting over their decision to form an association with propaganda outlets owned by the major political parties.

‘Allied Newspapers Ltd, which publishes Times of Malta said: “Allied Newspapers Limited is the only media company in Malta that boasts a unique structure where its editorial platform and the content it produces operate independently and without interference from the company’s management.

“The company’s participation in this association, will, therefore, have absolutely no impact on Times of Malta’s journalism. Furthermore, editorial is free to scrutinise the operations of the new association, as is the case with all other local organisations.”‘

If you know anything about me and how I think, you can probably imagine I wasn’t exactly thrilled to hear of these developments. This was my first reaction to the announcement, which I’ll expand on further below.

Admittedly, I was furious when I posted this comment, but as I reread it now, I can’t help but conclude that what I said with such palpable anger stands up to scrutiny even when looked at in the calmer daylight.

Before I elaborate any further, I would also like to make a disclaimer. This is not, in any way, shape, or form, an attack on the journalists who work for the companies which represent their newsrooms. This is an act of calling out those powerful, influential individuals at the top of the news industry hierarchy who wish to retain their status and are more willing to collaborate with the enemy to protect their profits, even if it comes at the cost of jeopardising the entire industry they operate in.

But that’s just it, isn’t it? This isn’t a development that threatens the interests of the whole journalism industry in Malta, which is already in a sad state to begin with. It only threatens the parties outside of this agreement, because it provides a distinctly uneven playing field in terms of lobbying power.

On what grounds does this association justify excluding smaller newsrooms whose work can be just as valid as theirs? Besides the likelihood of having more complex infrastructure behind it, there is no tangible difference between a good article that was written by a journalist at the Times and a good article that was written by a journalist at The Shift, for example.

So why do these three large newsrooms, which have a historical chokehold on the bulk of the market to begin with, feel the need to band together to protect their interests at the expense of everyone else’s? And why do we have this outdated emphasis on print when nobody buys print anymore? Is it perhaps because it is more innocuous to say ‘print’ instead of ‘big-boy media outlets with multiple avenues of publication’?

And, most importantly of all, why was this association formed in conjunction with media entities owned by political parties which, for decades on end, have been responsible for polarising public discourse and weaponising news items for their own political ends? How can you possibly justify legitimising competitors who do not play by the basic, fundamental rules of objective journalism by forming an association that puts independent newsrooms on par with propaganda outlets?

How can you proudly thump on your chest and declare yourself a defender of press freedom when you are aiding and abetting those same propaganda outlets which are regularly deployed against journalists, columnists, activists, and any other dissident worth mentioning?

And please don’t even get me started on the Times’ hollow attempt at going the extra mile to justify this particular atrocity. Whenever shit hits the fan at Allied Newspapers – like that time their former managing director Michel Rizzo was arrested in relation to fraud charges – editorial always wheels out this tired old excuse, putting itself at arm’s length away from the commercial side of the company and claiming it is totally independent of its operations.

Let us, for the sake of the argument, assume this is 100% true and that there is absolutely no influence at all over the editorial’s decision-making. Let us stretch our goodwill by another mile and assume that there is no ill intent towards smaller competitors and that there is some justifiable reason for excluding them which we are not aware of.

Any independent news editor worth their salt would go ballistic at the thought of being put in the same sleeve as the propaganda arms of the Labour Party and the Nationalist Party. Any journalist working at the Times, Malta Today, or The Malta Independent who believes that their credibility and the cleanliness of their reputation is paramount ought to currently be starting a riot over the fact that, whether they like it or not, the financial interests of their paymasters are now formally aligned with the interests of those who have no credibility whatsoever.

This is an extremely worrying development for press freedom in Malta and I am deeply concerned about how this situation is going to unfold. I call on all journalists of goodwill who are just as disturbed by these developments to reach out to me directly so we can discuss the best way forward together.

If we don’t stick out our necks and fight back, there will truly be no independent media left in this country to speak of.

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