The Malta Independent 29 September 2022, Thursday
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Government’s anti-SLAPP proposals ‘not comprehensive enough’, Article 19 says

Albert Galea Thursday, 28 July 2022, 12:41 Last update: about 3 months ago

The international media NGO Article 19 has expressed its concern that the government’s anti-SLAPP legislative proposals will not be “comprehensive enough” to address the challenges which journalists face when exercising their right to freedom of expression.

In a statement released on Wednesday, Article 19 said that while it welcomed the government’s initiative to address these issues, there is a “lack of a proper framework to prevent strategic litigation against public participation (SLAPP).”

“In our analysis, we raise concerns that the proposals do not address a range of issues that journalists face, from harassment to lengthy court proceedings for defamation,” the NGO said.

Article 19 encouraged the government to “take further steps to meet its international human rights obligations and fully protect and promote a safe media environment in Malta by offering a range of recommendations for how the proposals can fully ensure the protection of journalists.”

The NGO was commenting on drafts published by the government back in January which propose to amend the Constitution and other laws, as well as to establish structures to strengthen democratic society.

These drafts are currently being scrutinised by a committee of media experts which was appointed on the recommendation of the public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder.

While welcoming the government’s initiatives, the NGO said that “several provisions are positive steps forward, including those attempting to limit the liability of the heirs and of the publisher in case of the death of an author or editor.”

The NGO also said that proposals put forward by the Opposition also “contain certain strong protections and should be duly considered by the government.”

However, based on its analysis of the proposals, the NGO said that it remains sceptical that they will achieve the change needed to protect journalists.

They drew particular attention to a number of particular issues.

“The proposed restrictions on the freedom of expression of public officers do not meet international standards. The aim of ‘maintaining confidence in the public service’ is overly broad and open to abuse. This provision could be used to silence whistleblowers or officials who are critical of the government,” the NGO said.

“While we appreciate the attempt to limit the enforcement of defamation judgements from third countries in Malta, the provisions are not clear and do not provide sufficient protection against SLAPPs. Indeed, the protections are only directed towards SLAPPs initiated in third countries, offering no protection against those initiated in Malta. Without protections in Malta, a SLAPP case from a third country could still be enforced in Malta according to national standards,” it continued.

The NGO also pointed out that threats, including harassment, that risk putting journalists’ safety at risk are not sufficiently addressed.

“Aggravated penalties for bodily harm are welcome but do not cover all the threats that journalists face every day that put them at risk,” they said.

With these points in mind, Article 19 made a number of recommendations in order to limit the effect of SLAPPs which the government can take onboard.

These are to adopt comprehensive measures against SLAPPs, including early dismissal procedures for both the court and the defendant and to specify the aggravating circumstance when a victim is specifically targeted for exercising their right to freedom of expression, amongst others.

The NGO said that the term ‘journalist’ should be understood as broadly as possible in order to include a wide range of media workers.

Finally, the NGO said that the protection of journalists in the country should be strengthened by enacting a National Action Plan on the Safety of Journalists and that there should be collaboration with journalists, media outlets and civil society to better understand what is needed to ensure the full protection of media freedom.

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