Freedom of the media and the press is fundamental for our society. Which is why, as a politician, I have always spoken up in favour of journalism and what it represents: it is a pillar of any working democracy founded on the rule of law, like our own.
We have taken significant and concrete steps to strengthen the media. For many years, Malta’s defamation laws were left untouched. It was clear that reform was required and we took the appropriate steps to strengthen press freedom.
We examined the anachronistic and restrictive press law and replaced it with the media and defamation act. Among many other positive measures, this law eliminated criminal libel and contains provisions designed to stop vexatious or unnecessary libel suits. No previous administration had taken such steps.
In fact, the law is sometimes subject to criticism for giving too much elbow room for media-spin and false statements, to the extent that any person in public life must take whatever comes his or her way in the media irrespective of the consequences on that person, whether political or personal.
The increase in the use of strong language and the general lowering of the tone in public debate is something that has taken place everywhere – with increased use of the social media – and this is an area society also needs to have a frank public debate about.
Like anything else, an expression should be evaluated in the context in which it was made. However, circumstances may also dictate that it be considered in the context of the target audience.
Against this backdrop, we, as the public, must be careful not to fall into the trap of believing everything and anything posted online. Especially since there are instances where sections of the media are not always accurate or necessarily fair when they make factual assertions or draw certain conclusions.
One mystifying accusation against our administration is that it has favoured SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation).
Nothing could be further from the truth. The media and defamation act actually includes several provisions which limit or mitigate the consequences of defamation.
Freedom of expression and the media are needed to make democracy work- Edward Zammit Lewis
Among other limiting provisions, we have capped the amount of damages recoverable in a single action. It is also no longer permissible to institute multiple separate actions in respect of multiple repetitions of the same statement even if a court case is pending about the first statement.
Moreover, to safeguard the interests of parties and to prevent unnecessary freezing of assets, the code organisation and civil procedure was also amended to exclude the possibility of issuing precautionary warrants in order to secure a claim in an action for defamation.
As regards SLAPP by way of actions filed in foreign jurisdictions, our hands are somewhat tied to carry out further reforms since this involves issues of European Union legislation and private international law on the enforcement of foreign judgments.
If Malta is obliged under EU law to enforce judgments of other EU and EEA member states, it cannot just pass legislation stating that it will ignore such rulings, even if we disagree with them. It is up to the Maltese courts to decide whether a judgment violates Maltese public policy.
While this is not an ideal situation for the Maltese media, the SLAPP issue needs to be tackled at a European level with clear EU rules applicable to all. Malta has never opposed such an initiative and will continue to speak out in favour of a fairer and common approach to this issue.
In the modern scenario of so-called ‘convergence’ between the various print, broadcasting and electronic media – and increased social media use – traditional radio and television broadcasters are no longer seen as the principal means through which the public is informed. Yet, there remains demand for their services.
Clearly, no country can afford to lose its independent media and the general rule for truly independent media must be that they are supported by the people: which means their readership and viewership.
That is not to say that the government cannot support the media but any such assistance should ideally only be through appropriate protection measures. Entity funding should be seen as a last resort under special circumstances (like a global pandemic, wherein Malta Enterprise issued a scheme for media houses to be funded based on set criteria).
Democracies fail or succeed based on their journalism. This is why we must continue to ensure the government and the public support journalism. Freedom of expression and the media are needed to make democracy work. A politician who does his work in the best interest of the public never shies away from people scrutinising what he has done.
I maintain my commitment to ensure that my work continues to be accountable to the people that trusted me with representing them in parliament and that the Robert Abela administration conducts further positive constitutional and institutional reforms.
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