If the media is to become a fourth pillar of democracy, it will need to subject itself to regulatory checks and balances, Robert Abela said on Monday.

Abela said he was willing to hear out those who wanted the media to be formally protected through the Constitution, but said if that happened, it would have to follow the path that the state’s other three pillars have trod.

“Each pillar of government can scrutinise the other - that’s the way our Constitution is set up,” Abela told journalists.

“They all have regulatory frameworks. They don’t have unlimited powers without corresponding obligations. God forbid that was the case,” Abela said.

“Obviously, any other pillar that is added will come with its own regulatory requirements and frameworks.”

Robert Abela about media reform. Video: Matthew Mirabelli

Abela was reacting to questions about President Myriam Spiteri Debono’s calls for the media to be officially recognised as a fourth pillar of democracy – something media reform activists have pushed for years, and which was among proposals made to the government by a state-appointed media reform committee.

Democracy’s three recognised pillars are the executive, legislative and judiciary.

The media is sometimes referred to as the fourth pillar due to its function of scrutinising authorities and keeping citizens informed, but that function is not enshrined in the Constitution.

When it first unveiled media reform proposals in October 2022, the government had pledged to include the media in Malta’s Constitution as democracy’s fourth pillar.

But when reform bills were tabled in parliament, it emerged that the government wanted to do so by including the media in non-enforceable parts of the Constitution, meaning it would just be a declaration of principle that could be easily disregarded.

Abela’s comments on Monday suggest that should the media’s role become constitutionally protected, the government would also move to regulate it. That is a contentious issue, as media regulation is most often associated with authoritarian countries and the suppression of free speech.

An exception is the UK, which sought to introduce a media regulatory body after a local newspaper was revealed to have hacked into people’s phones. However, regulation there remains voluntary and different publishers have signed up to different regulatory bodies. 

Speaking on Monday, the Prime Minister said he was disappointed that media reform proposals presented by the government years ago were still not part of the law.

Those proposals included tougher sentences for anyone who commits a crime against a journalist, giving magistrates the ability to drop libel cases if the journalist or editor involved dies and provisions protecting journalists from SLAPP suits.

But the move was slammed by critics, who decried the lack of consultation, and the government subsequently paused the process in October 2022.

Abela said he could not understand why critics, among them the Opposition, were so dead-set against the proposals and argued that they were “totally in journalists’ favour”.

“Why is there so much meddling? The government wants to strengthen journalists’ positions - we drafted and tabled the laws.... any procrastination is definitely not the govenrment’s fault.... I wanted these proposals to be law months ago,” he said.  

Talk of media reform has dragged on for years.

The reform committee appointed by the government in January 2022 was tasked with making proposals based on recommendations made by a public inquiry into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

In September of that year, the government presented three bills to reform media laws, based on what it said were committee recommendations. Following an outcry about a lack of consultation and the failure to include some of the committee's key recommendations, the Justice Minister froze that legislative process.

The media reform committee then held a public consultation session and presented revised recommendations to the government in July. The government held back from making that report public for months, drawing criticism about a lack of transparency.

In October 2023, Abela made the report public and said the government would open the reform proposals up to public consultation, as sceptics were demanding.

Media not seeking new powers through constitutional changes

In a reaction, rule of law group Repubblika observed that no one was proposing constitutional change to give the media more powers, or to make it another branch of the government.

President Myriam Spiteri Debono had described the media as the fourth pillar of democracy. Constitutional amendments could recognise that fact, not create something new. And the media was of itself a means of checks and balances over the government.

What was needed was a constitutional guarantee that the government would respect its duty in a democracy and protect freedom of expression.

What needed to be done was listed in the recommendations of the Daphne inquiry in July 2021. Among other things, the government needed to stop obstructing freedom of information and dismantle its control over public broadcasting.

It should also lift its control over the discriminatory use of public funds on the media and parliament should legislate against SLAPP cases, even those which originated in Malta.

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