The Malta Independent 18 September 2021, Saturday

Board of inquiry urges law to protect journalists and ensure professional self-regulation

Shona Berger Sunday, 1 August 2021, 07:45 Last update: about 3 months ago

The judges who carried out a public inquiry into the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia have recommended that a legal framework should be introduced to protect journalists and ensure the profession is self-regulated.

The report, which is 437-pages long, highlighted a comprehensive list of recommendations made by the board after the public inquiry concluded that the state should shoulder responsibility of the journalist’s murder.

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Recommendations were made by Judge Emeritus Michael Mallia, Judge Emeritus Joseph Said Pullicino and Madam Justice Abigail Lofaro to implement a law which regulates the profession of journalists.

Following testimonies made by journalists before the board, it said that there seems to be a need for a law which provides an organisational framework in which journalists have the opportunity to operate freely and are completely cut off from undue interference or pressure.

“Such a law should ensure that the profession of journalists is self-regulated similar to other professions such as accountants, architects and pharmacists,” the board said.

The most salient recommendation made by the board is that the state should formally and publicly acknowledge the serious shortcomings of Joseph Muscat’s administration leading to the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

It also said that the government should take every appropriate step to ensure that the state reconciles with Daphne Caruana Galizia’s family. It should also start the process of healing the deep and traumatic wounds that the family and country have suffered.

Another recommendation made by the board is the need for a formal structure within the police through which it can regularly and sustainably identify which persons, and not just journalists, who are for any reason exposed to serious attacks, escalating to physical violence.

This should not remain solely acknowledged by the Commissioner of Police alone, but a specialised unit should be set-up with trained people who have the ability to identify who is at risk, make an objective assessment of that risk, the causes that are creating it and how it relates to the profession and/or work of the person, the board said.

This specialised unit would be similar to already existing units which aim to provide protection to other categories of vulnerable persons.

The board also recommended another operational measure which the police need to take. This involves the timely investigation of serious allegations being made as a result of investigations made by journalists. This would not only reduce the element of risk, but it would also enhance journalistic work as a key contributor in the fight against abuse and crime.

“The failure by the Police and other regulatory authorities to intervene and investigate allegations made by journalists in a prompt and effective manner, favoured the act of the assassination,” the board said.

It added: “it is reasonable to assume that if the necessary steps had been taken at the right time, the elements of illicit or illegal acts which led to the murder of a journalist, would have significantly reduced, if not completely eliminated. It is a fact that for one reason or another, the police failed to identify who and what was the cause that led to this serious and imminent risk.”

It was also recommended that police corps have a thorough understanding of the journalist’s role as a guardian of democracy in the country and as a valid collaborator with law enforcement to ensure the rule of law.

“Journalists, especially those who investigate behaviour which seems incorrect or suspicious, should not be seen as enemies by the police and regulatory authorities,” the board said.

At a constitutional level, recommendations were also made to strengthen journalism in the country. The board urged the introduction into the Constitution of the phrase that free journalism is one of the pillars of a democratic society, and that the state has an obligation to guarantee and protect it.

It has also been suggested that an Ombudsman’s Office or a Commissioner for Journalism Ethics that is independent and on the same lines as the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life be set up. It would need to be completely autonomous and impartial and have the function to implement laws and regulations that look at freedom of the media and the right to information.

The board also emphasized the need to amend the provision of the Constitution establishing the Broadcasting Authority. It was submitted that the public service Broadcasting Authority failed its duty of impartiality, as the serious allegations of corruption that were revealed as a result of an investigative journalist, were not adequately and accurately reported.

Meanwhile, at a legislative level, the board highlighted that the refusal to provide information or to provide limited and late information, especially to a journalist investigating a matter of public interest, has only served to increase speculation and increase unnecessary contrasts.

“In the search for truth, there needs to be an open public administration to ensure participatory democracy,” the board said.

It has also emphasised the need to address the problem of the possibility of SLAPP libels. The Media Defamation Act also needs to be reviewed in order to eliminate the possibility of frivolous libel cases against journalists held by public office holders who have a duty to defend the right to free expression.

It was also suggested that there were no grounds for libel lawsuits against journalists to continue after their death.

From an organisational point of view, it was recommended by the board that government advertising in the media is distributed fairly.

In view of all the findings, the board urged the state to examine in depth the state of journalism and the exercise of the fundamental right to freedom of expression. “This should be done with the aim of implementing the recommendations made by the board in a holistic and organic framework in order to give journalists the recognition they deserve.”

This exercise could involve amendments to the Constitution and the Laws, also aimed at ensuring adequate protection and support for the profession. According to the board, this could be entrusted to a committee of experts composed of academics, media law experts, journalists and media house owners.

In a conference addressed by Prime Minister Robert Abela on the same day that the report by the public inquiry into the journalist’s murder was published, he said that he has invited the Institute of Maltese Journalists (IGM) to start a process to implement the recommendations on strengthening the journalistic profession.  

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