The antiEU media campaign in Malta: a product of political polarisation

Article published on April 22, 2003
community published
Article published on April 22, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

From Malta, an analysis of the medias' stance and coverage of the referendum on the accession of the island to the EU.

Im writing this article on the eve of a very important day in the forty-year history of Malta as an independent democracy. Tomorrow, 12th April, is Election Day on this island of slightly more than 380,000 inhabitants. Just one month ago, on the 8th of March, the people of Malta voted in favour of joining the European Union a slim majority of 54% voted yes. So why is tomorrow so crucial and why do I start this article with these words? For two reasons. The first is that the leader of the opposition Malta Labour Party, which has mounted a strong antiEU campaign over the past five years, has pledged that he will not sign the accession treaty in Athens on 16th April, if elected. Secondly, any analysis of the antiEU media campaign has to be examined through the very specific political prism that is local Maltese politics - a political situation, so marked by a deep cleavage, that a political party can actually pledge to go against the will of the majority of the people in a referendum if elected to power.

Where shall we start? I think that understanding the media in Malta requires a thorough understanding of the political system which has dominated the island since it gained independence from Britain in 1964. I wont go into the historical narrative. However, one thing must be explained. Maltese politics has been marred by deep political polarisation. Some commentators have described the situation in almost tribal terms. It is characterised by a perennial power struggle between the blues (confusingly named Partit Nazzjonalista or Nationalist Party) versus the reds (Partit Laburista or Malta Labour Party). This polarisation is exacerbated by the fact that elections are won or lost on the basis of a swing of 10, 000 votes this way or that and marred by a fundamental divergence on Maltas foreign policy. The debate on EU membership was not spared. On the contrary, while some hoped that the EU would provide the stimulus for reconciliation, for regaining common ground and for establishing consensus on fundamentals, it has been transformed into a political football that has dominated the scene for the past seven years. The Nationalist Party, in government since 1987, barring a two year period of Labour rule (during which they froze Maltas accession process) between 1996 and 1998, has been strongly in favour of Maltas EU accession. The Labour party, perhaps a victim of the polarisation which it helped create, has logically been viciously opposed to Maltas membership of the European Union.

How does the media fit into this scenario? Since 1987, the two major political parties have not only owned and run their own newspapers but also their own radio stations and, more recently, their own powerful television stations. This has meant that, while the liberalisation of the airwaves was hailed as a crucial development towards freedom of expression in Malta, the political parties have actually tightened their grip on the public sphere. To all intents and purposes, polarisation has increased, not decreased, as a result of free broadcasting since the parties grip on their media outlets is almost absolute. Their message is all-pervasive and their media presence enormous. While state television does exist, kept in check for impartiality by a Broadcasting Authority, and five English language newspapers purport to be the independent voice of Maltese politics, the entire system has, in fact, been bogged down in this polarisation. Since the English-language print media have supported the Nationalist Partys push for EU membership from the beginning, the Labour party has launched an attack on these newspapers, claiming that they are simply biased in favour of the party in government and against anything Labour proposes. So the messenger is often attacked instead of the message. Journalists, editors and columnists have been criticised as simply toeing the governments line while their arguments are rarely addressed convincingly.

The situation has come to this: a very pro-EU message from the Nationalist Party media camp and the independent English-language newspapers on one side of the fence and a sometimes viciously antagonistic stance taken by the Labour party media machine and newspapers on the other. Labour has also recently set up a web-site, (see links)which is their only real voice in the English language.

The EU has literally taken over any other debate in the Maltese islands in the past five years and it has become the battle ground for the political parties. As the debate developed and as MaltaEU relations got closer and closer throughout the negotiation process, when the accession date was announced and during the build up to the referendum, the voices got shriller and more radical, culminating in an unbelievable debate on the finality or otherwise of the referendum result. While foreign newspapers hailed Maltas decision to join the EU, here in Malta we were still debating whether the referendum was in fact conclusive.

All this demonstrates that when we speak of the Euro-sceptic media in Malta, were really talking about the media led by a political party that enjoys at least 47% of the electorates support. That is why Malta has been described as the most Euro-sceptic of the ten accession countries: a country split down the middle politically on almost anything under the sun, but most importantly, in todays scenario, on its foreign policy with the European Union.

Having explained the peculiar background in Malta, Ill move on to describe the actual content of the Labour message transmitted through its media. There was nothing terribly original about Labours message when compared to that of other euro-sceptic campaigns across Europe. It was the usual mix of arguments based on the loss of sovereignty line of thinking. Unfortunately, it was also peppered with a good dosage of untruths or half-truths about the EU which had to be constantly rebutted by government, the state-funded Malta-EU information centre and other journalists.

Brussels was transformed into a far-off land of faceless technocrats and unknown politicians with little knowledge of Maltese problems and desires. There was talk of selling our island for a few million Maltese Liri. At the lowest moments of the campaign, Commissioner for Enlargement Verheugen was given a rough ride by the local media which took the cue from the Labour leadership. However, the focus was on emotions rather than on reason. The message was essentially that Brussels churns out laws which do not apply in our particular circumstances and that we should remain masters of our own destiny. The latter, expressed in Maltese as Rajna Fidejna (just to give you a foretaste of the Maltese language), became a central media slogan. Perhaps ironically, a splinter group called No2EU, brought over some conservative British Euro-sceptic MPs to talk to the Maltese about the damage that loss of sovereignty would bring to Malta - the United Kingdoms former colony! These events were then covered by a private media station. The same splinter group, whose chairperson later stood for election with the MLP, also produced a one-off anti-EU magazine on the eve of the referendum. It also had its own website.

The media and politicians in Malta literally created a cauldron of information, facts, half-truths and opinions. One may safely say that the EU was the only real issue over the past couple of years. It was tiring at times, frustrating at others. What did emerge, positively, is a relatively informed public or, at least, an interested public. Figures speak for themselves. While in Malta, 91% of eligible voters cast their ballot in the referendum, in Hungary, which held its referendum on the 12th April, only around 46% chose to cast their vote.

I started this article on the eve of a general election. Im concluding it on the day after the results were made official. I hope that Im not breaching this journals policy by stating that I am thrilled by the result. The pro-EU message won the day and Malta has been a sea of Maltese and EU flags over the past two days. The media played a huge role over the past weeks and months and the anti-EU message was constantly reaching at least half the population. The result reflects the role it played in a polarised country. Almost 52% voted in favour of the governing pro-EU party while the Opposition notched up almost 47% of the votes.

Today, many Maltese hope that EU membership will be the catalyst to eradicate the unhealthy strain of political and media polarisation that has dominated the islands for the past thirty years.