Justice Minister Owen Bonnici this evening invited the Opposition to come forward with a means of redress for people who filed criminal libel suits years ago and promised that he would consider their proposed amendments.

Dr Bonnici was reacting Shadow Justice Minister Jason Azzopardi’s reiteration of the Opposition’s view that Clause 27 of the proposed Media and Defamation Bill was in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The bickering between Dr Bonnici and Dr Azzopardi took place during the debate in second reading on amendments to the Interpretation Act. These amendments, introduced by Parliamentary Secretary Deborah Schembri, were intended to enable government boards to function even if all of the nominations provided for by the laws establishing such boards were not made.

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According to Dr Schembri, the need for these amendments had arisen when Opposition Leader Simon Busuttil refused to nominate an Opposition representative to the newly-formed Lands Authority’s Board of Governors.

Dr Azzopardi’s remarks were made whilst he was criticising the government’s failure to further amend the Interpretation Act in two regards. The first was the government’s own promise, made in August 2016 following the approval of the Townsquare development permits in the absence of ERA Chairman Victor Axiaq, to amend the law in order to allow substitutes to be appointed in cases when representatives on government boards were indisposed.

Secondly, and more importantly, said Dr Azzopardi, the Interpretation Act needed to be amended in order to render it consistent with recent European Court of Justice rulings. While the Act allowed for the continuation of criminal cases even after the revocation of the law that provided for the criminal offence in question, various ECJ rulings had established that this violated Article 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In response, Dr Bonnici explained that, were criminal libel to be stricken from the statute books without current proceedings continuing to be heard, those who had filed criminal libel suits over a year ago would be unable to defend their reputation by filing civil suits to replace them because of the one-year statute of limitations on the latter.

Despite this fact, however, judges hearing criminal libel cases after the introduction of the Media and Defamation Act would only be able to impose those penalties prescribed for cases of civil libel, and would not be able to sentence defendants to the currently permissible maximum of six months’ imprisonment.

In this, Dr Bonnici contradicted Dr Azzopardi, who insisted, quoting from Law Commissioner Franco Debono’s comments on an article appearing on the Times of Malta, that such penalties had in effect already been prohibited by a 2006 amendment to the respective law.

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