The Malta Independent 29 January 2023, Sunday
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Stronger freedom of expression

Owen Bonnici Friday, 13 April 2018, 08:26 Last update: about 6 years ago

The new Media and Defamation Bill is now at its final stages as it has reached unanimous approval at committee stage. 

This Bill is historic. It provides an unprecedented freedom to our country’s journalists, media practitioners and citizen-journalists and guarantees the safeguarding of freedom of speech. 

It builds upon crucial reforms done during the last legislature through which freedom of artistic expression was strengthened considerably. At the time the Opposition had branded the anti-censorship bill as an exercise of 'ksuhat' (stupidity). A couple of years afterwards, we were proven right.

The new media bill is the second step in the two-pronged vision for increased freedom of expression.

Reforms for a stronger democracy

Through the new media reforms, Malta has truly opened its doors to freedom of expression, thus further strengthening our democracy.

During the past two years, Government has been in constant consultation with stakeholders (including OSCE) and every stage of the discussion has contributed to the advancement of this Bill. 

We are constantly striving to further democracy in Malta, and Government is always open to engage in fruitful discussion that contributes to the betterment of our society. 

The coming into fruition of this particular Bill can easily serve as a blueprint (a point of reference); that law should be written through wide consultation, and in respect of fundamental rights which a modern, democratic country should safeguard.

18 principal changes

The introduction of this law will bring with it 18 principal changes.

Defences on libel actions are being strengthened to be in line with the latest jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights. At the same time, this will continue to protect the privacy of private individuals however this protection does not extend to public figures where what is being said has a significant bearing on the performance of public functions of the individual.

A major advancement is that criminal libel cases which are pending at the time this new law is entered into force will be dropped. Also all criminal offences will be removed from the media law and the few retained will be transported to the Criminal Code. In fact, a whole list of offences in the Criminal Code which affect freedom of expression will be removed.

This Bill’s introduction sees that for words to be considered of a libellous nature, they must be words that cause, or are likely to cause serious harm to a person’s reputation. This aids the discouragement of cases concerning libel or defamation on statements which do not cause serious consequences to one’s reputation. Defamation done by the spoken word and not through publication will not be a criminal offense anymore but will give space to civil action where the maximum amount for damages which can be awarded is EUR 5000.

There has been no increase in the amount for damages which can be awarded for a libel case, and these will remain the same as established in the current Press Act (EUR 11,640). The media’s proportionality is better safeguarded when it comes to the awarding of damages. In this case, the Court will also be obliged to consider the effect that the payment of damages will have on the person which is ordered to pay.

This law is also encouraging alternative dispute resolution measures when it comes to the hearings of libel and defamation cases for the termination and settlement of litigations such as mediation. Due to the sensitive nature of media laws, regulations which are done under this law will require to be approved by a Parliament resolution before they are entered into force.

A crucial aspect of this Bill is that the protection of informants will apply to each editor, publisher, author or website or broadcast operator and it is also looking to safeguard website editors, who will have additional defences over those of print and broadcasting editors’ due to the specific nature of websites that receive public comments. On another note, the right of reply will remain, however non-observance of this right by the editor will give rise to civil remedies and not criminal ones.

The Code of Organisation and Civil Procedure will be amended so as any kind of precautionary measures in cases of libel cannot be issued, also the Act to regulate Electronic Communications will be amended so that words of defamation which were shown or spoken on a website and that action was taken against under the Media and Defamation Act won’t constitute as an offence against that act. 

This Bill also sees to the list of publications reporting on events which are of public interest which the public is informed about - therefore these will benefit from more liberties - will be extended. In a case when a statement has already been published or when the same statement is published multiple times, particular rules concerning prescription and cumulative action will apply. A new article on protection against defamation of deceased people which has an effect on the living will enter into force.

Journalists will have the possibility to form part of the Media Register, which is to be run by the media itself. The registration of editors and publishers will be on a voluntary basis and will not apply for editors and publishers of websites.

The Consultation Process

These 18 principal changes, as mentioned earlier, were obtained through wide consultation with various stakeholders including international agencies, the Institute of Maltese Journalists and Front Kontra ċ-Ċensura and their support and constructive feedback was essential in the advancement of this law. 

All throughout the consultation period, every contribution was considered and analysed thoroughly. 

One of the proposals about which Government sought advice, was the anti-SLAPP proposal made by the Opposition. Four legal opinions by key experts in the field on the matter were published earlier this week all came to the conclusion that the Opposition's proposal is in part legally unsustainable and in the rest does not add anything to the protection which our laws already afford to journalists against SLAPP lawsuits in non-EU jurisdictions.

Modern democracy

These reforms have soundly improved our country’s freedom of expression and are paving our way towards a more modern democratic country which sets the foundation towards a brighter future.

 

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