A Valid Opposition

…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.

19 responses to “A Valid Opposition

  1. danny attard

    ‘Like it or not, the messenger (AS) 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.’ Agreed in toto

    ‘I find Alfred Sant’s doomsday warnings of corrosion of democracy rather overstated.’ judgment postponed

    ‘The Times: …which just happened to back the Nationalist Party to the hilt before the March 8 elections…’

    Question. Did The Times back the NP or was it an integral party of NP strategy?

    The answer would go some way to throw a match-light on the democracy issue…

    (and ignore for a moment the fact that a leading Times news-guy went over to PBS news during elections run-in… the privilege two again…)

  2. fabrizioellul

    Western Europe: The region continued to have the highest level of press freedom worldwide, despite declines in Portugal, Malta and Turkey, the only country in the region ranked Partly Free.

    http://freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=70&release=649

    very few took notice of this.

  3. So let’s see if I got this right: French PM does not want questions, Maltese PM’s to blame. Right?

  4. @fabrizioellul

    Actually many took notice of that. What few noticed was that Malta’s decline was thanks to the antics of the hunters vis-a-vis the media. No, it was not thanks to JPO’s press card.

  5. Yes let’s see Fausto. No you don’t get it right. Here’s more from the RV article (as linked):

    “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.”

    Last I checked Noel Borg is not the French PM. He is the senior information officer from the Government of Malta.

    So in answer to your question… yep… PM’s office is to blame… the Maltese one that is.

    Ditch the glasses… the blue tinted ones…

  6. Ah yes because that’s the way it is when it comes to international protocol, doesn’t it? Francois Fillon says that at lunch he wants lobster thermidor and Gonzi pouts and says “Ma tarax! Dak li johrog mill-kunvent!” and instead orders Kate to put more salt into the soppa ta’ l-armla.

    And, of course, just like the Knight Templars, the Worldwide Jewish Conspiracy, the Bilderberg Group and the Trilateral Commission we have our own he-who-must-not-be-named who orders world leaders around. All you need to do is to remove the blue-tinted glasses … and put on a tin-foil hat.

  7. Re: Tin Foil Hat – what size would you want yours in?

    Protocol indeed. FF could have requested only 2 questions (although that seems highly unoikely) but I am sure that his entourage or equivalent of Noel Borg did not dictate that they come from the Times or PBS. The burden of favourable selectivity at that stage fell on Borg. Unless of course Fillon is on familiar first-name terms with journalists from our card-waving press and was passing on messages to Noel in code as to who would be the next journalist to pick.

    Nice try of trying to equate this question to tinpot crazy conspiracy theories. If you want to play that game I could always call the NP tactics equivalent to those of Mugabe… we both know both allegations are untrue but then again you seem to have been brought up in the PN school and would not find such a tactic too strange if the ends justifies the means.

    So. Glasses… foil hat… anything else on the list?

  8. Allow me to butt in a sec. What exactly are you trying to say here, Fausto? That Francois Fillon would have specifically requested the government of Malta to limit questions only to the Times and PBS? That he would have asked Nicholas Borg to prevent MediaToday journalists from asking questions? If so I would be flattered. It would mean FF actually read MaltaToday, and was worried about what it might ask. But if Fausto really thinks this, he clearly ought to have his head examined. I have no doubt Borg was acting on orders, but the orders did not come from the government of France. They came from the government of Malta, for two reasons that I know of (and probably a few others that I don’t.)
    1) The French press was present, and could conceivably have taken an interest in any question regarding the Libya deal (remember that France takes over EU presidency in July, and anything that may strain relations with Malta, no matter how minor from France’s point of view, is best avoided as far as the Maltese gov. is concerned.)
    2) FF was here to (among others) politely enquire why a magisterial enquiry into a shipping accident two years ago is not yet complete. The family of the 15 victims, all French, cannot sue for compensation before the enquiry report is submitted. Malta is playing for time, France is getting impatient, and the Times and PBS can always be relied upon not to raise what is clearly a grave embarrassment to the government.
    Oh, and while RCC may not “order world leaders around”, he certainly orders government officials around, and from what I am told he does it very, very effectively. Does Fausto doubt this, too? If so, he clearly knows nothing about how the Malta government operates.

  9. fabrizioellul

    Raphael, you are too negative; even J’accuse – you are ruining the nice Aura that there is around us.

    Pls conform with the rest. Be Happy Again. Find your smile again.

    While you are there; please leave your brains at the DOI office. in Happy Land you do not need to think.

  10. Raphael

    To assume that such a visit would have been planned between Maltese and French officials with the consent of the two sides is not a case that warrants having one head’s examined.

    As to a question from a journalist straining relations between Malta and France on a matter which has been raised previously by the French and the international press … well, you should feel flattered if that’s the case. But it would seem to be more a case of pretentiousness.

  11. Oh, Jacques, why don’t you go ahead and give us a lengthy, studied post comparing Nationalist Party tactics to Mugabe? By now the Mintoff-Gonzi comparison has lost a bit of its shock value.

  12. Isn’t that just what you would want me to do Faust? But I pointed the trap out before you set it. I am actually stating that we are not living under a Mugabe government but let us not be naive (or fake naivete) and call a spade a spade. Nuff said.

    Xarabank summary. The truth is that the government information service preferred not to allow certain journalists to ask questions – and prevented them from doing so. Verdict: Freedom of Press: 4/10.

  13. u ejja Jacques u Raphael, qed tesageraw ftit.
    kieku dan xi gvern li ma jirrispettax il-gurnalisti tant li lest, bhal nghidu ahna, izomm lil xi gurnalist kontra l-volonta tieghu maqful x’imkien biex ma jsaqsix lil PM mistoqsijiet imbarazzanti kieku nemminkom.

  14. Believe what you like, Rupert, but unless you’re getting all your news from controlled and approved sources (the likeliest scenario in 21st century Malta) the example you gave has already happened. Ask One TV journalists who attended a press event in Palazzo Parisio during the election campaign. They were locked in a room to avoid any contact with GonziPN. Meanwhile, the Faustos of this world will enjoy deflating these and other concerns by drawing the most odious and extreme comparisons imaginable: Mugabe, Myanmar, etc. I think 1950s America is a much better analogy.

  15. Erm Raphael… I think Rupert’s comment was tongue in cheek. Sarcastic even. In fact he was referring to the Palazzo Parisio event.

  16. Oh. Ok, come non detto then…

  17. And, erm, Raphael … the Mugabe comparison was a “threat” on the part of Jacques. I only egged him on. Not at your sharpest, are you?

  18. fabrizioellul

    As soon as someone tries to criticise the ‘chosen one’ you will always get people going out of their way in defending Him.

    why is that? why the trouble? They think that it is the opposition that should be checked, marked and spanked. I think that after 20 years, it should be the other way round. It is in the ‘national interest’ to do so.

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