Allowing ongoing cases of criminal libel to proceed even after a proposed media defamation law repealed the crime would be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, home affairs shadow minister Jason Azzopardi said this evening. 

Speaking during the second reading of the Budget Measures Implementation Bill, Dr Azzopardi said this was in addition to the threat to freedom of expression that the proposed Media and Defamation Bill itself posed.

The proposed Bill would repeal criminal libel, but subsection 2 of Article 27 reads that cases of criminal libel before the courts at the time of it is repealed would continue to be heard regardless of this repeal. This was a “legal heresy that even a freshman law student would know to avoid”, Dr Azzopardi said.

Adding that such provisions had been unheard of in Maltese law since the 1920s, Dr Azzopardi made reference to a 2011 ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, which asserted that Italy was in breach of human rights when it attempted to include similar provisions in its own legislation. The fact that this had slipped by government consultants, raking in hundreds of thousands of euros a year, he said, was evidence of the government’s “dilettantism”.

Dr Azzopardi also attacked the fact that the proposed Bill would require cases of civil libel to be heard by a judge, which the government had justified as a result of the doubling of fines for this offence. The added cost and duration of having such cases heard before a judge, he said, would bankrupt smaller media houses and independent journalists, taking up to four years for a date for the hearing to even be set.

Concluding, Dr Azzopardi said that the requirement for online news or comment websites to be registered with the government was reminiscent of policies put into place in Iran and Azerbaijan. Furthermore, other measures in the Bill threatened the basic journalistic principle of the confidentiality of sources.

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