The Malta Independent 16 May 2022, Monday

Media, defamation law will strengthen press power and responsible journalism – Evarist Bartolo

Julian Bonnici Tuesday, 28 March 2017, 20:20 Last update: about 6 years ago

Minster for Education Evarist Bartolo, who had presented the proposed Media and Defamation Act to the press along with Minister Owen Bonnici, told parliament that the law will not only strengthen the power of journalists but will also look to ensure responsible journalism.

"Freedom is important, but so is using this freedom responsibly" he said.

He went on to say that it was important that it was the industry itself, and not the government, who regulated itself. He suggested the establishment of a press ombudsman or press council.

He spoke of the amendment which would have seen any person who ran a website which contained any news material to register, and said that the government listened to the public's concern and elected to remove it.

This will be removed in the committee stage, as the legislation that was presented to parliament had not yet omitted it.

Another amendment, the minister said, will ensure that the protection of sources will be extended to citizen journalists. Another will look to ensure that the press register will remain autonomous, and that the government was looking into existing models to examine which would work best for Malta.

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On the amendment concerning the increase in penalties, which will see the maximum be increased to 20,000 euros , the minister said that while IGM agreed in the increase, the union did not agree with the steep rise.

He backed up the government's stance by saying that not only will the libel case be harder for applicants to win, but will also ensure that the penalties will take into account the financial situation of the media person.

The final amendment will see the government become obligated by law to consult with concerned parties before any amendment be made to the law.

Deputy PN Leader Mario de Marco said that he will not be drawn on the merits of the amendments but rather took his time to stress the important role the media plays in a modern democracy.  He said that press  in a contemporary society has the power to keep government in check, so much so that the press could potentially drop a government.

This was echoed by Dr Zammit Dimech who said that a free press also guarantees that citizens are provided with their right to information. 

"When press freedom is stifled, it is only at the detriment of society"

Opposition MP Charlo Bonnici told parliament that he "smelt a rat in the intention of this act", explaining that the proposed legislation was presented as a "knee jerk reaction" to journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia's blog post which alleged that Minister Chris Cardona had attended  a brothel while on official business in Germany.

The minister refuted these claims, saying that the work on the proposed legislation began two years ago and involved legal consultation with members of the media.

PN MP Francis Zammit Dimech would later criticise the government for removing the amendment which would have seen any person who ran a website which contained any news material to register after public outrage, explaining that he thought the government was capable enough to understand how bad that part of the legislation was and that they were breaking the fundamental rights of individuals before protests informed them of that.

Dr Zammit Dimech said that it would be a lot easier to make arguments concerning the bill, if the bill being debated would be the final version, which the minister had previously said would be amended in the committee stage.

He went on to say that the committee stage was the crucial test for the proposed legislation as it will show whether the government will include the amendments it says it will include. He then said that it should not be seen as a formal exercise but rather a debate between both sides of parliament to include the amendments they felt were necessary.

Opposition MP Claudio Grech said that the law being debated was a milestone for the Maltese government, but stressed that the opposition was not an armchair critic when it came to the issue and had long campaigned for reforms to reflect the modern digital democracy.

PN MP Censu Galea referred to a meeting with the Institute of Journalists, and said that for a better debate and fair on the issue, the amendments government will propose should have been proposed so that everyone would have an idea of what is going on.

He said that persons who abuse the media and write false articles, do so without any form of respect.

He said that one cannot assume that everyone reading a comment, or an article, has the time to analyse and see what is and what isn't true in what is written.

"This bill will introduce the possibility of reconciliation, where one can meet before going to court," he said.

"I believe that the damage through an article cannot be fixed easily, as many a time when a correction is made, one might not always read it."

He said that he expects whoever writes an article to have the facts in hand, and show the evidence in a court hearing if challenged.


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