The Malta Independent 15 June 2024, Saturday
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Free speech, role of journalism to be enshrined in Constitution as part of government media reforms

Albert Galea Wednesday, 28 September 2022, 15:39 Last update: about 3 years ago

The principle of freedom of speech and of independent journalism will be enshrined in Malta’s constitution as part of the government’s proposed reforms to the media sector, Justice Minister Jonathan Attard announced on Wednesday.

The announcement came in a press conference where Attard announced a raft of reforms which are to be tabled in Parliament concerning the media sector.

The three bills will focus on different aspects but with the common goal, as Attard said, of strengthening journalism and the media industry.

They will be tabled in Parliament in the coming days but – despite calls – will not be open for public consultation beforehand.

One of the three bills seeks to amend the constitution in order to strengthen freedom of speech, freedom of the media, and the right to privacy, Attard said.

Firstly, he explained, the role of journalists as a public watchdog and their contribution will be enshrined in the constitution, as will the principle of a journalist’s source being protected.  This is something, Attard said, which establishes journalism and truly recognises it as the fourth pillar of the country’s democracy.

Attard said that the principle of source protection, which was introduced in 1996 and has been clarified since, has now been elevated to constitutional level, and that the principles on privacy will be adjusted to reflect Article 11 of the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Human Rights.

A number of criminal code amendments are also being put forward as part of the reform process, Attard explained.

The criminal code will firstly be making a physical attack on a journalist or complicity in such an attack have a greater punishment, by making a crime against a journalist because of their work an aggravated offence.

In changes to the Media and Defamation Act, a journalist or editor sued for libel will not need to pay court registry fees unless they lose the case, and the heirs of a journalist or editor being sued who has died while proceedings are ongoing will not be subject to financial penalties if the case is lost.

Magistrates will also be able to drop cases entirely if the journalist or editor who is a party in the case dies during proceedings.

These particular reforms have a direct impact on the Caruana Galizia family, as they continue to face libel cases which were initially opened against Daphne Caruana Galizia before she was assassinated in 2017.

Anti-SLAPP provisions have also been included in the reforms, with the government giving power under the proposed reforms to the courts to dismiss cases which are manifestly unfounded almost immediately if they deem fit, and to cap damages in SLAPP suits ordered by foreign courts to local equivalents.

Furthermore, local courts will also have the power to entirely disregard judgements by foreign courts in SLAPP suits if they deem fit.

SLAPP suits – or rather Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation – are court cases filed with the intention of suing the journalist or writer into silence.  This can be done, for instance, by filing the case in foreign jurisdictions, thereby making it impossible to challenge financially.

The third point meanwhile is the creation of a specialised media safety committee under the remit of the Home Affairs Ministry which will be responsible for ensuring the protection of journalists.

The committee will be led by the Home Affairs Ministry’s permanent secretary and also see the involvement of the Police Commissioner, the chief of the Security Service and the AFM’s Commander.

The proposals came following feedback from a committee of experts in the media on the government’s proposals – feedback which Attard said had been by and large accepted.

The committee which provided feedback on the government’s proposals was headed by retired judge Michael Mallia – who headed the public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder – and then included two representatives from the Institute of Maltese Journalists Matthew Xuereb (Assistant Editor at Times of Malta) and Kurt Sansone (Online editor at MaltaToday), along with former Malta Independent Editor-in-Chief Neil Camilleri, MediaToday owner Saviour Balzan, lawyer Kevin Dingli and academics Prof. Carmen Sammut and Prof. Saviour Formosa.

The feedback which the committee provided was also published.

Attard said that there was widespread consultation on the bills, but this jars with criticism towards the government and the committee for failing to be transparent about the process in the run up to these proposals being announced.

The proposals will not be opened for public consultation, but will be tabled in Parliament straight away and go through the process in order to be enacted into law over there.

Parliament kicks off on Monday 3 October.

In the meantime, Attard said that the committee’s work is still ongoing as it continues to draft feedback on other issues related to the media sector which were also mentioned in the public inquiry’s list of recommendations.

Attard said that the reforms are an “historic” step for the country and that Malta is recognising the role of journalists and their contributions towards society and democracy while also providing a strong message to international forums in favour of better protection of the media.

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