The Malta Independent 4 December 2021, Saturday

PM defends government’s track record guaranteeing freedom of expression

Helena Grech Thursday, 16 February 2017, 13:50 Last update: about 6 years ago

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said that he will not allow anybody to tarnish the reputation of the government by saying there is no freedom of expression when asked about garnishee orders against the press, and the hypocrisy of banning this following Economy Chris Cardona’s decision to institute one against journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

The Malta Independent asked the Prime Minister whether the proposed law to ban precautionary warrants of seizure against the press was hypocritical, when his own minister had instituted one against Mrs Carauana Galizia just days prior to the announcement.

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Mrs Caruana Galizia alleged Dr Cardona and his aide Joe Gerada visited a brothel in Velbert, Germany while officially invited to the country for a ministerial conference. Dr Cardona categorically denied these claims, while he and Dr Gerada filed two libel proceedings each against Mrs Caruana Galizia. The courts also approved a motion filed by the pair for the maximum damages for each libel case be frozen as a precautionary measure, meaning that she had €47,000 frozen pending the outcome of the cases.

In response to the question, Dr Muscat said:

“In the case of Minister Cardona and Mrs Caruana Galizia, I believe the situation is that the garnishee order is absorbed through the crowd funding, the funds have been gathered.

“The point was that we wanted to send a clear message regarding the freedom of the press. I will not allow anybody to tarnish the reputation of this government or country to say there is no full democracy or freedom of expression.

“We may not agree, and we have had arguments, but this new law on the press which has been ready for some time following much work had been approved by Cabinet. Not only did we approve it, but we added two points to it in order to send a strong message to the press and the public, but also to send a message to the international sphere.

“Apart from removing criminal libel, something that has been spoken about but nothing has actually been done, apart from the issue of garnishee orders being raised now, these were not mentioned in the consultations [surrounding changes to the press act], but even though this issue created such an uproar we felt that we should regulate this. We not only removed monetary seizures of warrant but also on assets

“With the amendments made by the PN, somebody could sequester assets. We said assets should not be sequestered either.

“We cannot create a situation where there are two categories of people, for the public there are still warrants of seizure, which is an important commercial tool, but it can be more rationalised than it is today.

Following the UK or Scandinavian model – possible Press Complaints Commission or Media Ombudsman

Dr Muscat delved deeper by shedding light on possible models the Government will imitate with regard press regulation in other European countries. Primarily, the possibility of a press complaints commission which would comprise of the press itself and presided over by retired members of the judiciary, or a Media Ombudsman. He stressed that such changes would only take place following extensive public consultation.

“The third point, and I emphasise that we need consultation, is the introduction of a press complaints commission. Looking at the UK model, it is comprised of editors of all media houses, presided by a retired judge. Before going to court, editors themselves will choose whether to rebuke or support the actions of a particular journalist.

“There are also Scandinavian models, where you don’t have a press complaints commission but a press ombudsman – which could be nominated by journalists themselves whereby we would provide tools to the Institute of Maltese Journalists to do so, or nominated by Parliament.”

Prime Minister said he does not interfere in the tools used by his ministers to defend themselves when pressed by the media as to how he does not find Dr Cardona’s actions hypocritical in light of the proposed Private Members’ Bill.

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