IT law association against registration of news websites

MITLA says new media bill is ‘nebulous law’ that presents ‘perverse affront’ to online rights

matthew_vella
Matthew Vella
16 February 2017, 4:05pm
Under the current Press Act, editors and publishers of newspapers must register their personal details and newspaper with the Registrar at the Department of Information.
Under the current Press Act, editors and publishers of newspapers must register their personal details and newspaper with the Registrar at the Department of Information.
The Malta Information Technology Law Association has raised concern over the proposed Media Bill for including a new obligation for websites to be registered in a media register.

Under the current Press Act, editors and publishers of newspapers must register their personal details and newspaper titles with the Registrar at the Department of Information.

The new law also makes it mandatory to register editors of newspapers, broadcasters and websites, and publishers of newspapers, under pain of a €1,000 fine.

In the proposed media law however, the protection of sources shall only apply in respect of editors and publishers of newspapers, broadcasting services and websites that are registered with the Media Register, and only for authors who “habitually” exercise the profession of journalist on a full-time and part-time basis.

The MITLA is claiming the registration scheme is similar to a number of repressive laws introduced in states like China, Bangladesh and, most notably, Russia through its infamous ‘Bloggers’ Law’, by virtue of which certain websites require registration with the State.

“[It is] a direct curtailment to freedom of speech online. The Internet is a bastion of activity and free expression – registration will put this under government control.”

The new law also defines a “website” for purposes of the defamation rules as a web-based service relating to news or current affairs that operates from Malta or whose editorial decisions are taken in Malta. Under the new rules, three months of inactivity will nullify the registration of the website with the registrar.

“Such obligations are unprecedented in modern democratic societies,” the association said.

MITLA also noted that the definition of “printed matter” is updated to include “any media content and any material uploaded on a website”, and pointed out that Maltese case law already recognises the applicability of the Press Act to online environments. “So the reason for this inclusion, especially in light of the territorial and substantive limitations of the proposed definition for website, is highly questionable.”

MITLA insisted that printed newspapers could not be placed at par with online publications “without any appreciation of the realities that technology and the Internet, as well as the rights and freedoms associated with their use.”

It also pointed out that while the media law is modelled on the UK Defamation Act which allows website operators a defence to show they did not post a statement on “The proposal puts the editor under undue risk for actions which are not his or her own thus creating a culture of restrained control whilst snubbing expression,” the MITLA claimed.

MITLA also said the minister retained power to make provisions for the removal of online content following a court decision, without a restriction found in UK law that a draft of the instrument is approved by parliamentary resolution.

“MITLA is extremely concerned to see regression into a legal framework which concentrates prerogative power in the figure of the minister,” the association said, pointing out how in the UK, such a provision only applies to websites hosting user-generated content, and that website operators are increasingly deciding to simply remove posts immediately without following the procedure, “which subsequently could result in a serious (and often unnecessary) curtailment on freedom of expression.”

MITLA said MPs should discuss the Digital Rights Bill, amending the Constitution, presented in 2014 in order to guarantee that the proposed rights of right to informational access, informational freedom and digital informational self-determination find their place as enforceable rights in our Constitution. “Any further delay will continue putting our basic internet freedoms, as evidenced by the proposed Media and Defamation Act at serious jeopardy.”

MITLA presently counts more than 200 members most of which are C-suite executive which hail from the legal, professional and technical professions.

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Matthew Vella is executive editor at MaltaToday.