Updated 4.07pm - Added Justice Ministry statement

IT law experts have blasted a requirement in the new media Bill for websites to be registered with the government as a move “attacking the very basis of internet freedom”.

But in a reply, the Justice Ministry has said the requirement is "only an extension of what exists today". 

The proposed Media and Defamation Act unveiled this week will require all websites to be registered in a new Media Register set up by the government.

Failure to do so will be subject to a fine of up to €1,000 and registration can be cancelled after three months of inactivity.

The requirement applies to “any web-based news service or other web-based service relating to news or current affairs that operates from Malta or in respect of which editorial decisions are taken in Malta”.

READ: PN MEPs slam proposals as a threat to internet freedoms

In a statement, the Malta IT Law Association (Mitla) said the proposal was similar to repressive laws in China, Bangladesh and Russia, where an infamous ‘Blogger’s Law’ was described as “draconian” by human rights groups.

“The internet is a bastion of activity and free expression. Registration will put this under government control,” Mitla said.

“Such obligations are unprecedented in democratic societies.”

Such obligations are unprecedented in democratic societies

The association added that while the Bill attempted to put websites on par with traditional newspapers – which are required to be registered under the current Press Act – it did so without any appreciation of the realities of the internet, with rights and freedoms that “cannot be simply considered as identical to traditional press channels in such a draconian fashion”.

Association president Antonio Ghio told Times of Malta the vague definition of websites in the Bill potentially meant that even a corporate website or personal blog that occasionally made reference to local news would be forced to register or risk a hefty penalty.

He described the geographical restriction, whereby the law applied only to websites operating from Malta, as “nonsensical” in the context of the internet.

“The fundamental right to share and receive information, even anonymously, should apply online as it does offline,” Dr Ghio said.

“Under this proposal, you have to register yourself with the State to express your opinion.

“They are attacking the very basis of internet freedom.”

Mitla added that the Bill attempted to replicate the UK Defamation Act, despite the British law being introduced only in 2013 and being the subject of harsh criticism ever since.

Moreover, several significant changes are made: under UK law, it is a defence for an editor to prove he did not know of a statement posted on his website, such as a comment on a news article, whereas under the Maltese version, it is merely a mitigation.

'A step towards more transparency', government claims

In a statement, the Justice Ministry rejected criticism of the new requirement, saying that it was simply "an extension of what exists today." 

"Newspapers and broadcasting stations have been registering the name of their editor at least since 1975, when the existing press law was enacted," the ministry said. 

Requiring websites to do the same increased transparency as the public would have "access to information," it argued, adding that journalists' sources would be protected regardless. 

The ministry said that it remained open to suggestions and proposals on any part of the law, "even during the Parliamentary debate," as it dismissed PN leader Simon Busuttil's criticisms stemmed from him no longer having "any arguments to make". 

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