There are people writing in the media about how democracy needs to be strengthened in Malta. They campaign for democracy to be “restored”, as if it were merely misplaced. I put it to you that we never had proper democracy in Malta. And it’s about time we did.
Democracy and elections are not synonyms
I’ve lost track of the number of people who explained to me that Maltese democracy works because ‘we have elections’. They usually adopt the kind of voice you put on when you need to explain something obvious to your six-year-old nephew. I wait till they finish and then, in a similar voice, explain that ‘democracy’ and ‘elections’ are not synonyms.
This is a common misunderstanding. People don’t realise there is more to democracy than a cross in a box on a paper in a room.
Democracy has four key elements:
- A political system for choosing, and replacing, the government through free and fair elections.
- The active participation of people in politics and in civic life.
- The protection of human rights of all citizens.
- A rule of law, where laws apply to all citizens.
This should be obvious but we rarely think about things this way.
Out of the list, I’m most interested in the second item. The other three are easy to measure – either there are free and fair elections or there aren’t, etc. – but how do you tell if the population is actively participating in politics and civic life?
How do you tell if the population is actively participating in politics?
Some point to voter turnout but that shows ‘participation’, not ‘active participation’. If I stand next to voters and watch them vote for one candidate or another, how do I tell if those choices are proper, informed decisions? How do I know that these voters took an interest, did some background research, weighed up the pros and cons?
It’s hard to measure this.
But it’s not hard to control it.
The majority of any population gets its news from the popular media. Malta is no different. (Before you say ‘social media’ allow me to remind you Maltese politics on social media comes from traditional media.)
Political parties control the traditional media in Malta. The main parties (the PL, or the Labour Party, and the PN, or the Nationalist Party) both have their own TV, radio and newspaper. It’s safe to say either set of channels is propaganda. There are some semi-independent newspapers but it’s becoming harder to see if they are independent or not.
Abroad, you can tell what a newspaper’s editorial colours are. But these change over time.
Tribalism in Malta being what it is, it’s difficult to have a proper independent media outlet. For example, in 2016 where the previously reputable Times of Malta became a government controlled mouthpiece. This happened because the Managing Director was in hock to the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff. It should have changed, and one would expect the Times to be whiter than white now. But the nagging doubt still lingers.
This is more important than most people realise.
If you get your news from a party-controlled source, then they are biasing you. The biased facts you think you know may not be facts. Or at least they’re presented in a party-approved fashion. The opinion-pieces you read are all propaganda. The result is that you end up with opinions based on half-truths and lies.
They brainwashed you.
Will we ever have democracy in Malta?
In Malta, people think this is normal.
How are we supposed to have a democracy if the parties control ‘active participation’ of our fellow citizens?
The Dean of the University of Malta’s Law Faculty, Dr Kevin Aquilina, has contributed to this debate. He explains what he thinks Malta should do to ‘develop democracy.’ It’s not clear if he means democracy is present and needs to be developed, or whether we don’t have democracy. I suspect he means the former.
In his article, published by The Shift News last November, Dr Aquilina rolls out a lengthy list of things we should develop in Malta. Being a lawyer by profession, Dr Aquilina’s list is heavy on what legislative changes government can make. He doesn’t suggest laws to enforce good governance, and this intrigued me. Governments have done this in the past, so I don’t see why he doesn’t add this to his list.
Maltese political parties have brainwashed you
Think back to the early 2000s. When the Enron scandal hit the news, it became clear the key problem was accounting fraud. The US enacted the Sarbanes-Oxley Act to make sure that all public companies must have good governance. Some conditions also apply to private companies.
I would add two points to Dr Aquilina’s exhaustive list:
- Ban political parties from owning or funding media.
- Encode good governance into law, making corrupt practices explicitly illegal.
Will this be enough to produce democracy in Malta?
This will be a huge step forward.
If the media didn’t ignore commercial principles, we would have less propaganda. Right now, this is legal, even if the ethics are rotten. This will (slowly) lead to clearer thinking.
Would a freer media in Malta be enough for democracy?
If we had a law stating a Minister cannot hire his girlfriend and give her a state salary, it would be a clear case of illegality. Right now, the legality is ambiguous even if the ethics are rotten. This will (slowly) lead to better-behaved politicians.
And both will (slowly) lead to proper democracy.
Will we ever be able to have democracy in Malta? What do you think?
- Diamond, L., “What is Democracy”; Lecture at Hilla University for Humanistic Studies; 2004-01-21
- Concrete steps for the development of democracy; Aquilina, Kevin, Dr.; The Shift News; 2017-11-20
- Enron Accounting Scandals; Wikipedia; (Retrieved 2018-02-21)
- Sarbanes–Oxley Act; Wikipedia; (Retrieved 2012-02-21)
All references were valid and correct when this article was published. Changes to referenced websites or web pages may render some references invalid. If this is the case, please leave a comment below.
Written by: Antoine P Borg
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