…would not be worrying so much about the Broadcasting Authority’s censorship of Teletubi as it would about the DOI’s dealings with certain journalists. Here’s Raphael Vassallo’s take on what happened at a Press Conference with French PM Francois Fillon:
I wanted to ask Mr Fillon if France’s nuclear deal with Libya was among the topics “of mutual interest” discussed with Dr Gonzi. I also wanted to know whether his government had been given any reassurances by Colonel Gaddafi that this technology would indeed be used only for “peaceful purposes”; and more significantly, whether he could guarantee that the proposed nuclear reactor would pose no health risk to the people of Malta and Gozo.
But I hadn’t reckoned on the DOI. Conducting media proceedings was supposed to be newly appointed OPM press secretary Gordon Pisani; but in reality, the man with the plan was senior information officer Noel Borg, who, under the watchful gaze of a certain Mr Richard Cachia Caruana, made damn sure that only two, privileged journalists got to ask any questions. These belonged to PBS (the national State broadcaster) and The Times: an independent and totally unbiased newspaper, which just happened to back the Nationalist Party to the hilt before the March 8 elections. When I repeatedly signalled my intention to ask a question of my own, Mr Borg gave me an unmistakable hand gesture that could only be interpreted as a clear and emphatic “NO”, before handing the microphone to the chosen journalist.
And yet, when asked afterwards what criteria he used to select the privileged few, Borg denied having refused anyone the opportunity to ask a question. “I would like to point out that there is not preferential treatment involved as to who, from the local media, should ask questions or not during Press Conferences,” he claimed.
And of course he is right. It is by coincidence alone that this privilege always happens to fall to the same old government-friendly media.
In the heat of the election we had the episode of Pullicino Orlando being handed a Press Card in order to suit the Macchiavellian needs of Joe Saliba’s party. Even Gordon Pisani seemed nonplussed when filmed live on cameras. Any criticism of that ridiculous charade was shot down – some said that the very fact that journalists needed press cards was a Stalinist leftover – and our message sank because we had been classed with the radical reformists (long before we were classed with the never-grown up unmarried category).
In the meantime the Institute of Maltese Journalists (IGM) would like to take over the honorous task of issuing Press Cards. This would not solve the problem. We could end up having the DOI issuing its cards and the IGM issuing its own. The problem lies further. We have clear evidence that when it comes to transparency at question time the DOI and Information chiefs prefer the angel they know to the devil they fear.
I find Alfred Sant’s doomsday warnings of corrosion of democracy rather overstated. Like it or not, the messenger is long past the sell-by date anyway and this serves the purpose of the ridiculing crowd who split their sides whenever there is a suggestion that democracy is threatened in our country. What is true is that there are several standards of democracy and while we may not be living in Burma or Zimbabwe we are definitely not living in a country that is a paragon of democratic practice.
The line between Mintoff and Gonzi? Mintoff’s government’s arrogance was in your face. The machismo of the new Maltese. Gonzi’s government can have these slips that are covered with a hypocritical smile. Asked by a French journalist how he dealt with criticism from the media Gonzi replied: “My experience has been that I have benefited from criticism by the media.”
Is he ready to forego any new experiences thanks to the way his press conferences are being run? Only time will tell.