The Malta Independent 24 October 2017, Tuesday

Updated: Press law revamp will abolish criminal libel, civil libel fine to increase to €20,000

Gabriel Schembri Tuesday, 14 February 2017, 18:14 Last update: about 9 months ago

Minister for Justice Owen Bonnici, together with Minister for Education and Employment Evarist Bartolo, today presented a bill which proposes a reform in media law. The bill proposes a number of changes which will affect journalists and civil libel cases.

Explaining the gist of the 22-page document, Minister Owen Bonnici said that the bill proposes the removal of the criminal libel once and for all. It also removes the possibility for a journalist facing libel to be slapped with a precautionary warrant, on both money in bank and property, a move that was suggested by the Nationalist Party in a motion presented earlier this week. The changes brought forward in the bill, which according to Dr Bonnici, is the results of months, if not years of work by the government, aims to have Malta in line with the principles laid out in the European Court of Human Rights.

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"These amendments will bring about more defence to journalists by widening their rights," the Minister said.

It also aims at addressing an anomaly in the current law. Presently, those journalists who report something libellous which was said by a foreign minister, can face libel charges. This will now be removed.

The fine imposed in damages for civil libel damages will increase to a maximum of €20,000, it currently stands at some €11,000. In a case where the journalist apologises but the person who filed the case wants to proceed with litigation, the court can order a maximum of €7,000 in damages instead of the standard €20,000.

The government also aims to introduce the possibility of mediation by which a judge will be obliged to see if the case can be resolved amicably, with the help of a mediator. The court can still decide to order up to €1,000 in damages.

Minister Bonnici explained that there are currently 129 civil libel cases pending before the courts and another 10 criminal libel cases. Criminal libel cases will be removed from Maltese law. The Bill also aims to introduce the possibility for an heir of a dead person to file a libel case for damages. However, the law will distinguish if the deceased passed away more than ten years back.

Addressing journalists, Minister Evarist Bartolo said that the government will now embark with a consultation document for responsible journalism. "We don't want freedom of speech to end up in the publishing of poison and hatred," he added.

"While giving more rights to journalists, we need to open a discussion on the role of the journalist. That is why we need to revise the Code of ethics for those practicing this profession. We also need to distinguish between citizen journalists, bloggers and journalists."

The Bill is considering the introduction of a press Ombudsman.

"Minister Cardona took an extreme action on an extreme person"

When asked about this law in the spirit of the recent news about Minister Chris Cardona filing a guarantee order against journalist and blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Minister said that he understood why his colleague did what he did. "Chris Cardona took an extreme approach on a person that is extreme," he said.

Meanwhile, Minister Evarist Bartolo said that the person in question (Caruana Galizia), has lied, has attacked people who are sick and family members. "I completely understand what Chris Cardona did to Daphne Caruana Galizia. The Law gives him every right to do so." 

PN Reaction

In reply, a nationalist party statement said that Minister Bartolo and Minister Bonnici had "seen the light", twenty four hours after the PN presented a parliamentary motion to remove precautoionary warrants in libel cases against journalists.

However, it read, the men were hypocrtical by announcing this legislation when the Deputy Leader of their party requested precautionary warrants in the libel case against Daphne Caruana.

It went on to say that on the laws on criminal libel, Owen Bonnici and Evarist Bartolo are sixteen months behind since in October 2015, PN Leader Simon Busuttil announced that a nationalist government would remove criminal libel. 

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