The Malta Independent 19 January 2020, Sunday

Media bill 'second phase' in opening freedom of expression; Minister defends anti-SLAPP rejection

Tuesday, 10 April 2018, 10:59 Last update: about 3 years ago

The Media and Defamation Bill presented today is the government’s second phase in its commitment to open up laws on freedom of expression, with the third seeking to regulate the journalism profession itself, Minister Bonnici told a press conference at Parliament this morning.

The first, he said, was the opening up of censorship laws and removal of the vilification of religion in the previous legislature.

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Bonnici, who was accompanied by OPM Communication Head Kurt Farrugia, also defended the government’s decision to follow the advice of four legal experts and reject the Anti-SLAPP amendment proposed by the Opposition in yesterday evening Consideration of Bills Committee meeting.

The Media and Defamation Bill was presented last November, after a previous attempt at such a law by the government caused controversy.

Through the law, it will longer be possible for an individual to file 10 libel suits on 10 separate stories which deal in the same allegedly libellous claim, something which Farrugia said shows that the government is committed to fighting SLAPP within Malta.

Criminal libel will be finally removed through this bill while the definition of what constitutes a libellous claim has been changed to mean that the written statement must cause serious reputational damage to the individual, with the scope of discouraging frivolous libel claims.

The bill also seeks to retain the €11,640 maximum damages rather than push the previous proposal for an increase in the fine to a maximum of €20,000.

It will enter its third reading before being transposed to law, something which Bonnici said was a formality.

When asked about the anti-SLAPP amendment, Bonnici reiterated that the government took legal advice from four separate legal entities; Professor Ian Refalo, Lawyer Paul Cachia, Attorney General Peter Grech and UK Law Firm Bird & Bird.

He said that all of them agreed that EU directives, specifically the judgments regulation and, clearly state that a member state must recognise a sentence laid within another member state or any state that forms part of the Lugano Convention (Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland.)

He did say that Malta will try to be at the forefront of the discussions when Anti-SLAPP directives are discussed at EU level.

The Malta Independent asked the Minister whether the government would recognise the anti-SLAPP amendment as public policy, given that despite the general rules, a judgement will not be recognised if it “to public policy in the Member State in which recognition is sought,” as noted on Bird & Bird’s client briefing on the matter.

He was also asked whether any of the experts had outlined why this could not take place.

The minister repeated that the Anti-SLAPP amendment went against EU law, and said that the government was following the advice of four legal experts and directed the newsroom to read the published material.

The newsroom asked the minister whether the government felt finch-trapping held more value than the rights of journalists, given that the government appeared to be willing to challenge EU directives and face court proceedings to defend the former.

Trapping was phased out after the island joined the EU, but was later reintroduced after 2013, with the government arguing that the season held a cultural derogation. Infringement proceedings were opened against Malta in 2015, and The European Court of Justice will make a decision this year.

Bonnici and Farrugia dismissed the idea and could not see a comparison between the two.

When told that the threat of SLAPP cases in foreign jurisdictions is the greatest threat journalists are facing, given that such a method was used by Schillings Law Firm last October against a number of media houses, Farrugia said that in those cases it was a legal letter.

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