Opposition presents draft bill to parliament: ‘An opportunity to take things forward’

"The recommendations made by the public inquiry were not merely the closing of one chapter but the opening of a new one" - Opposition MP Therese Comodini Cachia

 

In what is perhaps the first and most tangible step taken towards implementing the recommendations made by the board of the public inquiry tasked with establishing the extent of the State’s role in Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination, the Opposition Leader announced a raft of bills that incorporate all the major recommendations made by the public inquiry board.

The draft Bill, tabled by Nationalist Party Leader Bernard Grech, was presented to the House on Monday evening and comprises 12 other Bills that include amendments to Malta’s Constitution, the Criminal Code, the Code of Organisation and Civil Procedure, and the Media and Defamation Act.

Speaking to The Shift, opposition MP Therese Comodini Cachia, explained how in her view, the recommendations made by the public inquiry were not merely the closing of one chapter but the opening of a new one and “an opportunity to take things forward.”

When describing her work on the draft proposals on media freedom, Comodini Cachia said, “the country won’t mature as a democracy unless we work to bring about legal, political, social, and cultural change” and added that the proposals on media freedom “may not be perfect and may not be enough, but we have to start somewhere if we want to bring about a paradigm shift”.

She added that embedding freedom of the media in the Constitution “would be the best way to promote a shift in our attitude towards the press because the Constitution is what really describes us as a State”.

“I would like to see two main principles, debated and accepted: that of accepting a free media as a pillar of Malta’s democratic values and to create with an enabling environment for it. If we agree to those principles, everything else, such as access to information, participation in public debate and the protection of sources, will follow”.

Protecting the Fourth Pillar

Another proposed amendment would be to declare and recognise freedom of the media as one of the pillars of good governance with the aim to entrench the fundamental right to media freedom and the positive obligations of the State in favour of free and independent media in the Constitution of Malta.

This proposal follows the recommendation made by the board of the public inquiry to consider amending the Constitution so that “…free journalism is recognised as one of the pillars of a democratic society and that the State has the obligation to guarantee it and protect it”.

The draft Bill also includes amendments to the Media and Defamation Act and to the Code of Organisation and Civil Procedure. The aim of these amendments is to protect the press, journalists, and other persons from Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP).

SLAPP lawsuits are intended to intimidate and silence investigative journalists and independent media by burdening them with exorbitant legal expenses until they abandon their stance because of the threat of a financially crippling lawsuit abroad.

One of the proposals to protect against SLAPP suits includes the amendment to allow Maltese courts to decide whether a claim “is likely to have a chilling effect on public participation in debate on matters of public interest.”

The amendments to the Constitution also include listing the government’s duties in terms of safeguarding the public interest and the creation of an interim government whose purpose would be to run the administration after parliament is suspended temporarily in the run-up to a general election.

This would ensure that no extraordinary decisions are taken that would bind a future Cabinet with, among other things, measures that cannot be undone.

Amendments to the Criminal Code

The proposed amendments to Malta’s Criminal Code would include the offences of obstruction of justice as well as the willful dereliction of duties by a public office or servant tasked with duties relating specifically to justice, public order or public security.

The board of the public inquiry had specifically noted that “It is necessary to create a specific crime that persons in a public position would be subject to criminal proceedings if they try hindering the police, the prosecutors, the investigators and/or other officials like the Auditor General, the Ombudsman or the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life from conducting such investigations”.

Other significant amendments proposed by the Opposition in line with the recommendations by the board of public inquiry are the provisions for the criminal association of a mafia-like character and the creation of a new offence for the abuse of office.

In their report, the public inquiry board had also strongly recommended “considering the possibility of an amendment in the Maltese Criminal Code in order to incorporate the crime included in Article 416 bis of the Italian Criminal Code which includes the crime “of criminal mafia-style conspiracy”.

All of the above proposals are based on the board of inquiry’s findings that underscored how there is an urgent requirement that in Malta legal provisions be introduced to protect against such abuses.

Two other major changes being proposed would lead to the creation of a special inquiring magistrate against corruption who would have wide-ranging powers at their disposal as well as the creation of Unexplained Wealth Orders.

Other proposals include extending the period of arrest for major crimes to 72 hours instead of 48 and making it illegal for public officials to use private email addresses for government work.

The draft Bill presented by the Opposition was welcomed by the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation and the Chamber of Commerce.

In response to the Opposition’s announcement, the government issued a statement saying that it had “consulted widely” and will be announcing developments soon. Yet the Opposition stated that it has not been consulted on the setting up of a committee responsible for the implementation of the recommendations proposed by the public inquiry board.

In stark contrast to the proposals put forward in parliament by the Opposition and much like the original response by Prime Minister Robert Abela when the public inquiry report was first published, the time frames and details about the government’s plans to undertake the proposed recommendations remain vague and elusive.

                           
                               
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