The strengthening of democratic institutions and human rights, including media freedom, is an objective of Malta’s Foreign Policy Strategy. Freedom of expression, freedom to hold opinion and freedom of the media are a fundamental linchpin of a functional democracy. This is why Malta has felt the need to launch a legislative reform that includes significant changes to our Constitution. Through these proposed amendments, the existing provisions on the protection of freedom of expression will be enhanced, while freedom of the media will be enshrined as the fourth pillar of democracy.
The challenges facing media freedom are more complex than ever, resulting in significant negative impacts on the media systems themselves and their function in society. Allow me to focus on just a few of the manyfold challenges.
The media landscape itself has changed drastically with the online sphere having taken almost completely over the traditional role played by TV, radio, and newspapers. This overtake has had an impact on the whole setup and modus operandi of these media, including on their economic sustainability. To survive they were forced to adapt to the new trends of online consumption, having to shift not only their content but also their business models. This is causing a serious existential crisis in the realm of traditional media as revenues shift, and attitudes of consumers switch towards digital sources often made available for free. As a result, a world with printed newspapers as most of us have known might not exist for much longer. Pluralism, so essential to ensure that societies are well-informed with facts, is indeed in danger.
But the challenges facing media freedoms are not only caused by the digital realm.
In recent years we have experienced a growing global distrust and anti-media sentiment.
Journalists remain targets of attacks, both online and offline. The heinous murders of journalists in EU Member States, namely those of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, Jan Kuciak (and his partner) in Slovakia, Peter de Vries in the Netherlands, and Giorgios Karaivaz in Greece are testimony of this.
Allow me to make a little parenthesis here to underline that my country is committed to ensure that ALL those involved in the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia be brought to justice. The three hitmen have already been convicted, while the alleged mastermind is awaiting to stand trial by jury.
The danger faced by journalists in their work takes another dimension in times of conflict. In the past months we have seen unprecedented attacks and crackdowns against journalists and media houses, caused by Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine. Unfortunately, scores of journalists have paid with their life.
And then there is the scourge of mis and disinformation, the challenge upon which we decided to focus our Conference.
Misinformation and disinformation are not new phenomena. False and inaccurate information, whether spread unintentionally or to manipulate, have always been present. But the digitalization of information and civic space and the proliferation of social media platforms have significantly shifted the paradigm. Mis- and disinformation now spread faster than ever, cross borders, and target the most vulnerable in our societies. While traditional journalism was governed in general by a set of professional and ethical standards that put the public interest first, the online world is driven by totally different objectives. The main interest of many platforms is to keep us engaged only with a certain type of content thus lowering the likelihood of exposure to pluralistic media content.
Take, for example, the COVID-19 pandemic. This was not only the first global health crisis of our time. It was the first ever of the digital era, and it brought with it an unprecedented “infodemic”. We have all seen the spread of mass misconceptions and conspiracy theories, which not only put people’s lives at risk but also instigated hatred and divisions. Information was not scarce. But the proliferation of false and misleading information, both online and offline, was the first global test of society’s resilience to mis/disinformation. It also led to the wider acceptance that the phenomenon exists and that the norms and goal posts have changed.
Digitalisation and the resulting growth of the online realm also has had positive repercussions, however.
The stimulation of the digitalization of the civic space, has created more opportunities, especially for the youth, to engage and reclaim agency with political issues. Youth has also been the driver of significant social and political changes in the Euro-Med region and in the world.
This is why we wanted to have youth as the main focus of this two-day discussion.
It was also important for Malta to gather at this Conference youth from the wider Euro-Med region, specifically those hailing from the OSCE Mediterranean Partner countries. Due to its location, Malta has historically played the role of bridge between Europe and the Mediterranean region. For us, there is no doubt that our present and future are inextricably linked. Therefore, we want to foster cooperation on common challenges and work together to find common solutions.
I want to convey a very simple message to all the young representatives participating.
You are actors of change and have a role to play today. When it comes to the digital world, you are undoubtedly the biggest users and significant contributors too through the creation of content. I do not doubt that you all have experiences with mis- and disinformation. We all have. Youth is diverse in genders, ages, cultures, sexual orientations, and nationalities. Some of you might have suffered more from hate and extremism fuelled by mis- and disinformation. But none of you is or should be a passive target. I do not agree or believe that you are more naïve or susceptible than the older generations. Myself, and those older than me have undoubtedly more to learn from you on how to tackle this challenge, than we have lessons to teach you.
What is certain is that there is an urgent need to work together to improve our media and information literacy. At the opening of this Conference, anchor Alex Grech pondered on whether Media, Technology and Education have been the culprits behind this disinformation conundrum. I tend to agree more with his hypothesis that “Media, Technology and Education can get us out of this mess”. Education and media literacy will help improve skills, including social ones to empower us to better navigate through the complex information and digital landscape, while taking full advantage of the amazing opportunities of the media and digital space. This is why I hope that we can work together. We want to hear your ideas to face the information challenges. Your experiences are valuable. And I am happy that there has been general acquiescence on this, during yesterday’s debate.
I look forward to reading your manifesto and the discussion that you will have later this afternoon with the OSCE Representative on the Freedom of the Media, Ms Teresa Ribeiro, and the Head of the Information Society Department of the Council of Europe, Mr Patrick Penninckx. We are pleased to bring this two-day discussion to a close with such an interactive exchange. The Office of the RFOM has already carried out valuable work on the subject, and we are sure that her Office and the Council of Europe will find the outcome of this discussion and the perspective of the youth of our region valuable in their considerations.
This conference is not the end of the process. We will keep on working with youth on these issues. We will continue to listen to you. Because it is you that can instigate direct change.