The Malta Independent 26 September 2021, Sunday

Government presents revamped press bill discouraging frivolous libel cases

Helena Grech Wednesday, 15 November 2017, 14:44 Last update: about 5 years ago

The government this morning presented the revamped media and defamation bill which seeks to discourage frivolous libel suits and retains the €11,640 maximum damages rather than push the previous proposal for an increase in the fine to a maximum of €20,000.

In the previous legislature, the government had presented a new media and defamation bill but the snap general election halted progress. The government had received harsh criticism for including a mandatory registration clause for news portal editors and had also significantly increased the maximum damages one could be awarded.

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A renewed version of the media and defamation bill was presented today to journalists by Justice Minister Owen Bonnici and Employment Minister Evarist Bartolo.

Government will formally present this version next Wednesday in order for the legislative parliamentary process to begin.

Among the more notable changes, the definition of what constitutes as libellous has been changed to mean that the written statement must cause serious reputation all damage to the individual, with the scope of discouraging frivolous libel claims. It would no longer be possible for an individual to file 10 libel suits on1 0 separate stories which deal in the same allegedly libellous claim. This is a clear reference to the 19 cases filed by the db group against slaim journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, all dealing with the same story.

Newspapers have been slapped with many libel suits by aggrieved parties over series of articles that say the same thing - with the proposed law this would no longer be possible. Preliminary testimony period to court proceedings has also been proposed to create an incentive for aggrieved parties to come to a settlement before the case is heard in court. 

Criminal libel will be finally removed, with a notable difference that once this law comes into effect all previous criminal libel proceedings would be dropped. When the government proposed the new press law in the last legislature, it pushed for removing criminal libel but allowing previous criminal libel proceedings to continue.

The notion of slander would be introduced, so that when a person feels injured by what somebody has said about them, he or she would no longer be permitted to file a complaint with the police but civil remedy through slander could be sought. 

Web registration of online editors is now voluntary, with the possibility that the Malta Institute of Journalists would oversee the registry. 

The concept of protection of sources would be widened to include all those who are carry out journalistic work without being a journalists by profession.

On the issue of individuals and companies seeking damages in other jurisdictions, Bartolo and Bonnici said that this had never happened, and the issue of whether a foreign judgment would be enforceable is debatable. 

All forms of precautionary warrants of seizure would be banned under this new law, which has been retained from the media bill the government presented last legislature. In the past legislature, Economy Minizter Chris Cardona had requested - and obtained - the right to seize Caruana Galizia's assets after filing for libel. This would no longer be possible.

The principle of proportionality would be introduced where the courts would be required to assess the size and nature of the company or person when deciding on the value of libel damages it requires them to pay. 

 IGM statement

The Malta Institute of Journalists (IGM) note with satisfaction amendments put forward by the government on the media and defamation bill, especially through the inclusion of several proposals submitted by it.

 

In the previous legislature, the proposals presented by government on a new media and defamation bill had been criticised by the IGM. Since then, the group commended the government for consulting and taking its criticisms and proposals on board, such as the removal of criminal libel, retaining the current maximum libel damages and the introduction of the principle of proportionality when meting out libel damages. 

 

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