Presenting the government’s long-awaited media reform emerging from the public inquiry into the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, Justice Minister Jonathan Attard on Wednesday claimed there had been wide public consultation before its drafting, but the facts speak otherwise.
Attard repeatedly stressed during a press conference on Wednesday that there had been a “wide public consultation exercise” undertaken by the government. This apparently came in the form of talks with the Institute of Maltese Journalists (IGM), the ‘Committee of Press Experts’, international media freedom organisations and the family of Daphne Caruana Galizia.
He also mentioned a conference on the topic that had not been organised by the government.
The comments came even though Caruana Galizia’s family, just hours before the press conference, called for the public to be fully consulted before the new legislation is tabled in parliament.
A statement from Daphne Caruana Galizia’s parents stressed that any reforms should be opened to public consultation: “Reforms should be implemented transparently, preceded by a period of public consultation that should not be rushed for the sake of political expediency.
“Our daughter – and our country – deserve no less.”
But it is clear no real consultation will be held, with the justice minister telling the press today that the legislation will be presented in parliament as part of the regular parliamentary process, and with no further public consultation being envisaged.
The letter, signed by Daphne Caruana Galizia’s parents, Michael and Rose Marie Vella, “wholeheartedly” backed the recent call by over 100 editors, journalists, academics, artists and others in a letter to the Prime Minister last week “to immediately publish the advice you have already received from the experts whom you appointed and, before you present any legal proposals to parliament, to publish the government’s intentions for open and effective public consultation”.
The minister has lived up to half of the request. The advice was published, but there will be no “open and effective public consultation”.
They called for a process of reform that “is transparent, effective, and fully open to public scrutiny and participation”.
Caruana Galizia’s parents noted how, “It is disturbing that despite the findings of the state-appointed public inquiry into the circumstances of our daughter Daphne’s assassination – the reason why reforms are crucial – the government has to be reminded that ‘every citizen has the right to participate in reforms which, supposedly, are aimed at protecting their fundamental rights’.”
“Nothing will ever bring our daughter back, but Malta has an opportunity to redeem itself for its failure to protect her life by reversing the conditions that made her murder possible,” Caruana Galizia’s parents said.
“Our country needs truly effective reforms if it is to be capable of protecting journalists and safeguarding everyone’s fundamental right to be informed. The government will not achieve this by drafting laws in secret, nor by presenting legislation to parliament before it has thoroughly passed the test of public scrutiny and consultation.”
International advice ignored
In a desperate effort to gloss over the criticism the government is facing over the lack of consultation, the minister even referred to a conference organised on the initiative of the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation, not the government, to stress that debate had occurred.
The international press freedom organisations the minister said were consulted, meanwhile, have repeatedly said they have not been consulted and that their offers of assistance in the process had been ignored.
#Malta: In our meetings with @RobertAbela_MT free expression orgs repeatedly offered @MaltaGov technical assistance & pushed for transparency & full consultation in this process. None of those offers were taken up, nor has there been transparency or meaningful consultation. https://t.co/SRQdfqZE9D
— Sarah Clarke (@Sarah_M_Clarke) September 28, 2022
Sarah Clarke from Article 19 said on Twitter on Wednesday that the government had taken up none of the organisations’ offers. “In our meetings with Robert Abela, free expression organisations repeatedly offered the Maltese government technical assistance and pushed for transparency and full consultation in this process.
“None of those offers were taken up, nor has there been transparency or meaningful consultation.”
Back in July, nine leading international press freedom organisations said of the press experts committee and those consultations: “The terms of reference for the committee fail to require that the committee is independent, made up of individuals of demonstrable integrity and expertise, and that it should have cross-societal support.
“The lack of transparency and consultation with which the committee has operated since receiving its terms of reference poses a major concern to its legitimacy.”
They added, “The committee has not met with civil society, media or journalists nor Daphne Caruana Galizia’s family. It has also refused to participate in conferences relating to media freedom in Malta.
“While it is understood that the prime minister was presented with the committee’s advice on his draft legislation and that the committee is continuing its work, the process it has opted to follow lacks transparency.”
The proposed legislation in a nutshell
Despite the lack of public consultation, there are positive aspects to the reform as unveiled, with Attard explaining how the legislation to be tabled in parliament will enshrine the press as the Fourth Pillar of democracy in the Constitution. The legislation will also see that both journalists and their sources are protected by the Constitution.
Crimes against journalists because of their professional work will also carry higher sentences with changes to the Criminal Code being envisaged.
The family of a journalist who dies will no longer be pursued for damages in any libel action. The state of affairs was put under the spotlight after Caruana Galizia’s murder when her family had been left battling dozens of libel cases. Magistrates will now be able to dismiss or drop libel cases if the defendant dies.
Moreover, journalists or editors who are sued for libel will not need to pay court registry fees unless they lose that case, and such a payment is provided for in the ruling.
Libel cases will also be dismissed by magistrates prima facie should they find the plaintiff’s case to be “manifestly unfounded”, Attard said.
As far as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) are concerned, damages will be capped at Maltese levels, at just over €11,000 and, under some circumstances, the Maltese courts will be able to disregard foreign judgements.
The new legislation also proposes a ‘media safety committee’ to be run by the Home Affairs Ministry. It will be chaired by the ministry’s permanent secretary, the commissioner of police, the head of the Malta Security Services and the commander of the Armed Forces of Malta.