Freedom of the press and the media’s role as a public watchdog is to be enshrined in Malta’s constitution as the fourth pillar of democracy.
The pledge, made by the government on Wednesday as part of a raft of media reforms prompted by the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, also includes a commitment to include the protection of journalists’ sources within the constitution.
Crimes committed against journalists due to their work will also carry higher sentences, and the family of a journalist who dies will no longer be pursued for damages in any libel action as happened with Caruana Galizia relatives.
Launched by Justice Minister Jonathan Attard, the reforms were made public after a committee of journalists and media experts advised the government about how local media laws should change.
The committee was appointed in response to the conclusions of a public inquiry into the murder of Caruana Galizia, which last year held the State responsible for the 2017 assassination.
It said the State had created a culture of complicity and also outlined multiple shortcomings in Malta’s handling of the media.
Judge Michael Mallia, who also formed part of the Caruana Galizia public inquiry, led the committee which made a series of proposals.
In a document handed to journalists on Wednesday, the government claimed that 87 per cent of the committee's proposals were included in the final reform, albeit not all fully.
Attard did not say what made up the 13 per cent of committee recommendations that were disregarded.
“This is a historic reform that I hope sends a strong message overseas that increased protections for journalists are needed everywhere," Attard said. “We could have waited for the EU to take the first step on this matter but we decided we wanted to be on the forefront of the issue.”
The minister said that the committee of experts' work was "ongoing" and did not rule out further legal changes being made in the future.
The reform presented by minister Attard on Wednesday will be tabled in parliament and must be voted into law to come into effect.
Changes proposed include:
Changes to court procedures
- Crimes committed against journalists because of their work will be considered aggravated and therefore come with a higher sentence.
- A journalist or editor sued for libel will not need to pay court registry fees unless they lose that case.
- Heirs of a journalist/editor being sued for libel will no longer be on the hook for damages if the accused dies.
- Magistrates will be empowered to drop libel cases if the journalist/editor dies.
The last two are particularly relevant as the Caruana Galizia family continued to be pursued in court over libel action taken against the assassinated journalist.
SLAPP – Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation – are essentially court cases filed with the intention of bullying journalists or media into silence. They seek to intimidate the media, either by burying them in legal paperwork or by filing cases in foreign jurisdictions, often for sums that local media houses can never hope to pay.
- Courts will be empowered to dismiss cases that are manifestly unfounded.
- Damages in SLAPP suits ordered by foreign courts may be capped at local equivalents by a Maltese judge or magistrate.
- Local courts can disregard judgments by foreign courts in SLAPP suits.
- Freedom of the press to be enshrined in Malta's constitution.
- The media and its role as a public watchdog to be acknowledged as the fourth pillar of democracy.
- Protection of sources to be enshrined in constitution.
- Right to privacy (article 38 of the constitution) to be amended to come into line with EU norms.
- Freedom of Expression (article 41 of the constitution) to be amended line with article 11 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
The proposal also calls for the creation of a specialised media safety committeee under the aegis of the Home Affairs Ministry and led by the minister’s permanent secretary, police commissioner, security service chief and AFM commander.
How will the proposals be met?
The proposals would dramatically reshape the legal framework within which Malta's media operates, with constitutional changes being especially significant, given they will require a two-thirds parliamentary majority to be approved.
Currently, Malta's constitution makes only a tangential reference to the media, saying that any Maltese resident "can edit or print a newspaper or journal".
The proposed changes would enshrine it as Maltese democracy's fourth pillar, alongside the government's executive, legislative and judicial branches, formally tasked with serving as a public watchdog.
It remains to be seen how the proposed changes will be received by the local media sector, international watchdogs and indeed the committee of experts themselves.
More than 100 media professionals, including Times of Malta editors, signed a letter sent to the prime minister last week urging him to open up the reform proposals to discussion and scrutiny before moving them into parliament.
Earlier on Wednesday, Caruana Galizia’s parents said that any reforms should be opened to public consultation.
“Reforms should be implemented transparently, preceded by a period of public consultation that should not be rushed for the sake of political expediency. Our daughter - and our country - deserve no less,” they said.
Speaking during Wednesday's unveiling of the reforms, the justice minister argued that the government had consulted widely before presenting the reforms.
“The government has been communicating with journalists, with the IGM [Institute of Maltese Journalists], Daphne Caruana Galizia’s family and several local and international organisations," he said.
Furthermore, the government’s initial recommendations were public and submitted in parliament for public scrutiny, while the committee of media experts have been working on their reactions to this.”
'A few lovely words': Comodini Cachia
Lawyer and former PN MP Therese Comodini Cachia was among the first to react to the media reform proposals, saying that the new laws would not have saved Caruana Galizia's life and would not protect current journalists from being harassed.
"Nothing will change in practice for journalists nor for press freedom," she wrote on Twitter.
"FOIs [Freedom of Information requests] will continue to be refused; PM will continue to refuse interviews with independent media; journalists will continue to be harassed and demeaned. But we do have a few lovely words."
Chief among her concerns was the distinct lack of mention of anything related to the government's duty to provide information to the media, as well as what she said was a "weak strain" of the EU's anti-SLAPP directive.
"The proposed reforms will not bring about the change needed," she said.
Former National Book Council chairman Mark Camilleri was also critical of the proposed changes, describing them as a "sham" that came without genuine consultation and that would prove regressive.
"Both the UK and the EU are in the process of presenting legislation which will ban SLAPP altogether so while SLAPP will eventually be banned in Europe, Malta will have legislation which will allow it," he argued.
Rule of law NGO Repubblika expressed disappointment that the government had not consulted with journalists and the public before drafting the proposed reform.
The government, it said, had ignored sound advice for an effective reform.