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Journalists’ freedom under the spotlight

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Journalists’ freedom in the crosshairs

Kyriakos Pieridis

by Kyriakos Pieridis, AEJ Media Freedom Representative, Nicosia 11/04/23

Nicosia’s Municipal Theatre last Wednesday was packed for the play by Times of Malta editor-in-chief Herman Grech on the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in October 2017.  Like a mirror, it brought before the eyes of the Cypriot audience everything that has been happening for years in Cyprus: corruption flourishing, the silencing of investigative journalism, the cover-up of corrupt politicians.

They blew up her car outside her house. Daphne’s son Matthew, who was also present at the theatre performance, was the first to see his dead mother after the murder. A journalist and activist, he realized “when journalism stops being a pleasant and attractive profession “. He was asked if anything had changed on the small Mediterranean island. “I cannot accept that my mother lost her life for nothing,” he said. “Journalists show solidarity with each other. There are international journalistic investigations to expose corruption. There is international cooperation on freedom of the press. But the truth is that politicians are still getting away with it.

Cyprus passport king Anastasiades

Joseph Muscat (the corrupt, then prime minister of Malta and mastermind of the assassination) is still selling passports.

“In my country we still have a long way to go…Cypriots know very well that they have their own Muscat, Nicos Anastasiades (left). He was the EU champion in the golden passport industry, with 7,000 in total, half of them proven illegal.

He excelled in corruption for 10 years but felt little media pressure and never took any responsibility. He only gave limited interviews, criticizing those few journalists who were “unfair exaggerated”, as he put it. In practice, he never hesitated to pick up the phone to insult journalists, or have his subordinates involved to shut them up. In Cyprus, no one was found dead in a …ditch, but Anastasiades’ warning “you will go to hell” was enough for sending the message to anyone interested.

Droushiotis – constanly censored

That’s why Makarios Droushiotis, who recorded his corrupt presidency in three books with full evidence and details, was blacklisted by most of the media, even though his books were read by tens of thousands of citizens.

Waking up

The murder of Daphne Galizia has woken up the European Commission, which proposes EU legislation, the so-called “European Journalism Freedom Act“. It links it to the rule of law and the quality of democracy in its annual reports for each Member State.

Many different Member States are now under surveillance. Not just Hungary and Poland, but  unfortunately Cyprus, Malta, already stigmatized by corruption, and also Greece, which is backsliding despite having had a strong tradition of press freedom of the press since the post- dictatorship era.

The circle of silence is breaking. Last week, European Commission officials had the opportunity to hear first-hand from Cypriot journalists describing the decline of press freedom and pluralism in Cyprus. The surprising initiative of the Cyprus Press and Information Office, a government body, to invite Maltese journalists to Cyprus also shows that things are not standing still. Many understand the value of independent journalism.

Grech – “govt propaganda controls media”

This is shown by the massive turnout at the Municipal Theatre for the theatre play They blow her up. The Council of Europe was also present to launch the “Journalists Matters” campaign.

Critics are “enemies of the country

But the curtailment of journalistic freedom has taken on many different methods, says Hermann Grech: “it is the government propaganda system that controls the major media outlets – the mainstream”, as they say. The government classifies those severe journalists who exercise criticism to those in power as enemies of the country.”

The Maltese journalist could not have been more apt: this method of slandering journalists has been used systematically for at least 20 years by governments in Cyprus. It is “happily relayed” by some “mainstream” media, and they get other journalists to play the role of pushers. This is what they did for the Cyprus issue during the time of Tassos Papadopoulos‘s “era” as President.

This is what Nicos Anastasiades repeated during the Crans Montana UN Conference to solve the Cyprus issue and then extended it to selling passports: ‘they target the Republic of Cyprus and those circles in the EU who are jealous of our flourishing economy…’, Anastasiades claimed.

The “golden passports” racket

He was assisted by the then Archbishop, other politicians, business people, lawyers and accountants, even their associations, all with vested interests in the “golden passports” industry. Until Al Jazeera investigative journalists unveiled the show of Cypriot corrupted politicians and their affiliation with real estate developers. The play “They blow her up” depicts what Daphne experienced as she investigated the links between high-ranking Maltese Labour Party politicians and the Panama Papers.

Herman Grech gathers all the evidence of the case through his investigation, including the hypocrisy and attempted cover-up. He develops them in the dialogues of the play. The police investigator, the criminals, the journalist covering the developments, the corrupted politician. If it weren’t for the FBI gathering the evidence, the crime would have gone unsolved. The politicians who are the masterminds, however, are still free. The inefficient judiciary system takes care of that, just as it does in Cyprus. The former President N. Anastasiades established two political offices, one in Nicosia and one in Limassol, to oversee political life.

The new government of Nicos Christodoulides (elected President on  February 28, 2023) seems to think that corruption is not its concern. This is greatly helped by the General Attorney’s Office, led by two former Anastasiades ministers. Journalists have gradually stopped being involved and are not investigating the golden passports cases.

Daphne Galizia was annoying, she made revelations. They called her a witch, a bitch to discredit her. It was all methodical, right down to her elimination to make an example of other journalists: to self-censor, not to investigate. In Malta, as in Cyprus, many journalists have left journalism. With low pay, high risk, hostility from those in power, and hard working hours, “there are fewer and fewer journalists who want to get involved,” warns Grech.

Copy and paste

Matthew with photo of his mother Daphne

Since the time of the financial crisis in Cyprus, private media have been understaffed and producing little journalistic content. The practice of “copy paste” with edited government communiqués is cluttering news websites. The Presidency and ministries have endless resources and have set up communication staff to bombard social media.

Cyprus and Malta, small, Mediterranean societies, have many similarities. “My mother’s murder took Maltese people to the streets in a country where protest was limited to a few Facebook posts,” says Matthew Galizia: “It’s ridiculous to claim that there is corruption everywhere, just to hide the misery in your country.”

Journalism disappears, critical questioning of governments is compromised, informed citizens do not get answers. The virus of a government-controlled media landscape is spreading. “Nothing is taken for granted, as we thought,” warns Patrick Penninckx, head of the Information Society Department of the Council of Europe. “Journalistic independence, reliable information, quality of news, are demands that go beyond legislation,”

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