Media reform: setting the record straight

At every stage of the reform, it was clear that the prerogative of what gets into a bill was the government’s alone

Readers might not be au courant with the current debate about media reform, and how the nitty-gritty of the laws being proposed are so crucial for journalists and media practitioners. What is true is that this reform is pivotal for journalism and the democratic choices that the fourth estate help inform. It must be done right.

As a media owner, but also as a journalist, I have always argued that the other great challenge for the press, apart from having the legal protection necessary to discharge its public duties, is also its economic sustainability. As things stand, without any form of intervention, journalism as we know it could be doomed.

At the end of 2021, I was, as a media owner of an independent newspaper, asked to be a part of the press experts committee that had to consult government on the Bills it had drawn up as part of its follow-up on the recommendations of the  Caruana  Galizia  public  inquiry. I instantly shot down an  invitation to be chairman of the committee – that role, I said, should be reserved for an independent president – but I accepted to be a member of the committee.

Now, my appointment was criticised by the usual posse who have a dislike for my work in journalism and the media. I stood my ground: I have been in journalism for over 35 years, involved in TV, newsrooms, four start-ups for newspapers at  Il-Fehma,  Alternattiva, The Independent, and The People, and later my newspapers  MaltaToday  and  Illum, which also went digital.

I had something to offer, and experience from a history of having faced 85 defamation lawsuits,  SLAPPs  and garnishee orders threatening the livelihoods of my journalists. I know a thing or two about how journalism works in this country.

The knee-jerk reaction of critics of the press experts committee  was  that  we would be rubber-stamping the Bills, or that we would not be transparent about the proposals. More justifiable was the complaint about the lack of public consultation. Less justifiable were the calls for people to resign the committee while the work was ongoing.

But let me clarify a number of these objections.

When the experts  committee  was set up on 11 January 2022, we were given a strict deadline and remit. Our commitment was to present clear solutions in just two months – this detail is important – from the recommendations made in the  Caruana  Galizia  inquiry  report that was chaired by Judge Michael  Mallia, who incidentally, was appointed the chairman of this press experts’ committee. We were handed draft legislation by the government related to these recommendations.

In the first two months of the year, the committee worked to conclude its counter-proposals according to a very clear and strict remit, which included a reaction to legislation such as the  anti-SLAPP  provisions and the protection of journalists, apart from other significant themes.

On the first meeting of the committee – let the record show – we decided to go further by incorporating all the proposals by the NGOs and, most especially, the Nationalist Party. A number of us felt, instantly, that part of these other proposals were superior to what we had been presented. We knew there and then that our impression of the ideal law was to fuse all the good parts of the suggestions we were given, with the template we had been handed.

We did this in record time. The report was finalised right before the election at the end of March.

However, it was only presented to the Prime Minister after the election, because we felt that it would be ill-timed right during an election campaign.

Now, with a two-month meeting schedule we had been hardpressed to introduce there and then a space for public consultation on the laws we were working on. But, given that we had fulfilled our remit in terms of timing, the government did have much time, ample time to seek public consultation. If it so wished...

Because what happened is that, while the original brief stated that the government would bind itself to table a copy of the press experts’ committee report in the House of Representatives in 10 days... that did not happen.

No. It took much, much longer, I’m afraid. To be precise, it took over four months.

Sometime during summer, in August, justice minister Jonathan  Attard  indicated that the report was in his hands and that, some time before October, the new draft laws were to be made public. They surfaced at the end of September, with and without some of the conclusions in the press experts’ committee report.

At every stage, it was clear that the prerogative of what gets into a bill was the government’s alone. Hand on heart I can say that the press experts committee did not shy away from including all the third-party proposals put across the board on the themes raised in the draft Bill. And no external pressure was brought to bear on our discussion within the committee.

Instead, I had to fend off the harsh criticism of other journalists and  NGOs  of not being ‘independent’ enough, or up to their imagined standards to be a member in this committee.

The committee then faced another  daunting  task in the last three months, to debate other important topics related to the press, specifically pertaining to the sustainability of the industry and the media.

On my insistence, last week the committee informed the Prime Minister that it intended to go for a public consultation before finalising the next report.

Throughout my life in journalism, I have experienced different levels of criticism – apartheid, isolation, defamation cases, threats to media sustainability, accusations and mistrust – but it is time to trust the different members’ experience on the committee, because it has truly done its job.

The committee should consult the public, and the public’s recommendations, in a bid to strengthen the resolve of the press to achieve the reform it truly desires. But there needs to be a degree of cooperation, rather than gratuitous accusations, especially when even the government is choosing to ignore the full recommendations of the committee, apart from not respecting the time-limits it set itself.

It would be foolish not to realise that the government could be tempted to react to the chorus of discord within the press, and from activists, as a way of using the prevalent divides to steamroll with its laws. That is why it is crucial to achieve, for the benefit of the industry and the livelihood of journalists, a united drive in calling for wide public consultation and reasoned argument in favour of the best kind of laws we can hope for.