Parliament's Select Committee for the Recodification and Consolidation of Laws which meets under the chairmanship of Dr Franco Debono will today resume its discussion on the consolidation of Press laws. I took part in the first meeting which was held last week but unfortunately cannot attend this week's meeting.
The members of the Committee (Dr Debono was accompanied by Dr Francis Zammit Dimech and Dr J Herrera) engaged in an open discussion with eight journalists and lawyers. (Six of us were named Joe, showing the type of imagination showed by most Maltese parents at the time we were born. However, I prefer the standardisation common at that time to the wild imagination – strong on "wild" low on "imagination" - of many parents today.)
I know that people are not really interested in discussions about the media though they are all for discussion programmes on the media. But given the great importance of the media in our society and culture, I think we should discuss the legal framework regulating the news media environment resulting from the rapid increase of the digital media.
Let me share some thoughts with you, hoping (perhaps against hope) that we will have some sort of debate.
1. I totally support the parting shot of Dr Debono: freedom of expression and of communication should be considered as something sacred. Perhaps these were not his actual words but this was he was saying emphatically. We should then try to find the best possible balance between this very important right and other rights, for example the right for one's privacy or reputation.
2. The new media environment has radically changed the old paradigm of communication. Within that paradigm communication was from the few to the many. This is what happens in the case of newspapers, radio and television. The new media environment is characterised by the instant communication of whoever wants (the "whoever" can be made up of groups not individuals) to whoever wants to engage anywhere in the world. Facebook and the other social networks are the new plazas of the global village. People can drop in and out at the time of their convenience. Through Twitter one can communicate short messages to thousands. Chavez just announced that he has three million followers on Twitter!
3. While it was relatively easy to regulate newspapers, radio and TV it is difficult to regulate the internet. This means that the balance that had been reached between, for example, freedom of expression and privacy rights in the legal regime regulating the traditional media now has to be re-visited. To-day it is very easy to have freedom without responsibility. This is not right.
4. The Internet has collapsed space, almost annihilated it. To-day it is easy to have a blog which could be registered in one country but would target the people of a different country. Lies and defamatory material can be spread without impunity. I think that there is not a lot that can be done to control this abuse.
5. There are blogs and news sites which clearly identify who the person responsible for them is. This is the right way to go about things. People should take responsibility for what they write or post on the Internet. Some people and organisations object. They say that this is not a level playing field as those who do not register the name of the person responsible for their site would then be in a disadvantage. I do not agree with this line of reasoning.
5. Let me take an example from the non-journalistic world. There are companies who strive to get an ISO standard. This is not something that many companies are obliged to do. They do it because they believe that it pays to produce quality material even if producing it exacts a price. Those who do not have an ISO standard will "benefit" as they would spend less and produce products which could be sold at a lower price. However their products would not be considered to be quality products.
6. A blogger or the owner of a news website who believes in giving quality stuff should be in favour of raising standards even if it would imply the voluntary (or legally binding) shedding of anonymity or the acceptance of legal responsibility. Owning for one's product is a mark of quality.
9. The search for a new paradigm of self-regulation, co-regulation and regulation is not an easy one. Short cuts should not be permissible. Our country is ruled by laws passed through Parliament, not by the whims of the Prime Minister. Therefore calls for the Prime Minister to stop the publication of blog "x" or website "y" are not only inane but show a lack of appreciation for the rule of law.
6. One hopes that the meetings of the Parliament's Select Committee for the Recodification and Consolidation of Laws will help up move towards the adoption of a new regulatory paradigm. It should however stay miles away from trying to set up a self-regulatory regime. The latter is the responsibility of the industry.
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