Updated 5pm - Added reaction of Institute of Maltese Journalists

A proposal to increase civil libel damages to €20,000 has been ditched under a revised Media and Defamation Bill unveiled this afternoon.

On the other hand, the revised Bill seeks to introduce the principle of defamation of deceased persons, which will apply for up to 10 years following the defamed person's death.  

Details on the revised Bill, whose first reading was approved in July, were given this afternoon during a press briefing addressed by Justice Minister Owen Bonnici and Education Minister Evarist Bartolo.

An initial draft of the Bill was presented last February and led to a storm of controversy, as it would have obliged editors of online publications to register themselves. Criticism had also been levelled at the proposal to double civil libel damages to €20,000, as well as at a provision which would have allowed pending criminal libel cases to continue. 

The widespread criticism had prompted the government to return to the drawing board, and following its decision to call a snap general election in June, the legislative process had to begin from scratch. 

This time around, registration has been made voluntary and will not apply for online media, with the Bill allowing the media itself to administer the media register. Civil libel damages have not been revised and pending criminal libel cases will be dropped once the Bill becomes law. 

The revised Bill itself will be published next week, with a seven-day public consultation period. Nonetheless, it was stressed that the revised version was the result of talks between the government and various entities, including the Institute of Maltese Journalists. 

The Bill updates defamation laws, abolishes criminal libel and introduces a new civil remedy for slander. It seeks to avoid disproportionate restrictions on journalists, while protecting victims and encourages more use of dispute resolution mechanisms such as the right of reply, voluntary clarifications, mediation and other means of avoiding litigation.

Moreover, the Bill prohibits the issue of precautionary warrants in defamation cases, meaning warrants such as that sought earlier this year by Economy Minister Chris Cardona against Daphne Caruana Galizia will no longer be permitted.

Dr Cardona had obtained a precautionary warrant to the tune of €47,000.

In a statement, the Front Against Censorship welcomed the revised Bill and said the government had agreed to the majority of the group's proposed amendments. 

Among those amendments are changes to ensure insulting the President is no longer a criminal offence, reforming colonial-era sedition laws and ensuring plaintiffs can only file one libel suit per story. 

The reforms, the Front said, "represent a huge step forward in the dismantling of Malta's censorship laws."

Reaction from the Institute of Maltese Journalists

In a reaction, the Institute of Maltese Journalists (IĠM) welcomed the fact that all its proposals had been included in the Bill.

These amendments include the removal of the criminal libel, the ditching of a proposal to double maximum damages and mediation.

Other proposals made by the IĠM that were taken up included the removal of cautionary warrants and the removal of the need for both traditional and electronic media editors and publishers to register.

The protection of sources was also being guaranteed.

The IĠM said it would be analysing the Bill in more detail and would be moving new proposals for consideration.

Read a copy of the revised Bill in the PDF below. 

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