Opposition leader Bernard Grech has tabled a mega-bill in parliament, made up of 12 draft laws, aimed at addressing recommendations by the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry through constitutional changes.
The Nationalist Party has dubbed the changes as “major” but what is being proposed? Times of Malta has reviewed the bill, which would have to get government backing to become law, and identified the most significant proposals made.
1. President given more powers
One of the major changes that the proposed bill would enact sees the president being given extra powers.
This includes assigning special duties to a magistrate as well as granting exemptions from criminal proceedings.
In the latter, the president may issue a certificate in writing exempting any person from any criminal proceedings on condition that the person “gives evidence according to law of all the facts known to him relating to any corruption practice”.
It would mean the president can make such a decision without having to consult the government. This is unlike what happens when a presidential pardon is granted, in which case the president usually acts on the advice of cabinet after its consultation with the attorney general and the police.
The PN’s bill instead states that, in this case, the president would be able to grant the exemption based on “his own judgement”.
2. Special Inquiring Magistrate chosen to focus on corruption
The PN is also proposing the setting up of an Office of the Special Inquiring Magistrate against Corruption.
The president would have to assign the special duties to one of the magistrates of the Inferior Courts.
While serving in this role, the magistrate would not be assigned any additional duties and must serve a period of six years.
After that period, the magistrate would either once again be assigned normal duties or be reassigned for another six years.
According to the proposed changes, the Special Inquiring Magistrate “shall act independently and shall not be subject to the direction or control of any other person or authority”.
The magistrate would also be provided with “suitable premises for his office”.
Staffing requirements would also be the prerogative of the chosen magistrate, who would also have the power to request the assistance of the police to conduct investigations.
Once completed, the magistrate’s procés-verbal (a blow-by-blow account of every piece of evidence and testimony collected) is sent to the House Speaker.
When it is concluded at this stage that there is enough evidence to support a prosecution for corrupt practices, the copy is tabled in parliament. If not, the report remains secret and is not tabled.
The magistrate may then draw up charges and transmit them to the Police Commissioner for the individual under investigation to be summoned and charged.
3. Use of personal electronic communication resources restricted
The bill also seeks to introduce rules that regulate the use of personal electronic communication resources such as e-mail accounts or messaging applications.
According to the proposed changes, non-official resources cannot be used to receive any money or profits or in a way that does not “safeguard the pecuniary interests of the public, thereby causing harm or financial loss to the public”.
PN sources said that this does not mean that any public official will be barred from having personal accounts.
However, these must be used strictly for personal reasons and must in no way be used for anything related to the public role.
Those caught in breach of this law would be liable to a prison sentence of between six months and two years.
4. Rules for caretaker government outlined
The PN said it also wanted to address the unfair advantage that the party in government enjoys during an election campaign.
To ensure that the election is fair for all parties, the PN is proposing that there is a caretaker government once an election is called.
Under the proposed laws, cabinet cannot take any decisions while no permits, permissions, authorisations, licences, concessions, privileges, dispensations, general or specific amnesties and similar decisions shall be granted by any body/corporate established by law.
“Nor shall any allocations of government land or housing be made.”
In case of a national emergency during this period, the prime minister may take a decision “only if he has sought in writing and obtained in writing the unconditional approval of the leader of the opposition”.
5. Media freedom to be established as fourth pillar of democracy
Another major change would be the recognition of media freedom as “an essential pillar of democracy”.
This would mean that the state would be duty-bound to promote the independence of the media and also to safeguard media pluralism.
The state would also have to provide an “enabling environment for journalism, journalists and other media actors”.
The changes also take into account strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) action, which are vexatious suits aimed at financially crippling a media house or journalist.
The PN’s proposed changes would force the state to protect journalists from such action.
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