Delivering the promise of media reform | Jonathan Attard

These ground-breaking and innovative amendments will enshrine the duty to respect media freedom and pluralism, and the significance of the journalists’ role in society in the Constitution

Labour has proven its governance credentials by implementing constitutional and institutional reforms that had been shunned or shelved for many years.

This has been recognised by the European Commission, which cited the changes in favour of the rule of law we introduced, as a model of good practice for other European countries. Several international credit agencies have also recognised this positive change.

Our commitment to strengthening democracy is firm, and improvements to the media law framework reflect this commitment.

In line with our solid mandate, the last legislature set up a committee of experts to propose ideas on how journalism can be strengthened in our country. Following the Public Inquiry report into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2021, we immediately started taking action to implement the recommendations therein.

Implementation is no ‘copy-paste’ exercise. Broad consultation took place: there were several public debates on this subject, draft Bills were prepared; Prime Minister Robert Abela passed on the drafts to the Committee of Experts by tabling them in Parliament. The recommendations of the Committee of Experts were, in their majority, taken on board as reflected in the reform presented.

As the fourth pillar of our democracy, the importance of the media and journalists’ valuable contribution to the functioning of democracy are not up for discussion. With these three draft laws we are strengthening the protection and freedom of the media, and Maltese journalists will be given the highest certainty and protection to be recognised in the Constitution of our country.

We will establish, by law, a committee focused solely on the protection of journalists, other media professionals and persons in public life, a step crucial for the recognition and safeguarding of journalists and media professionals in Malta.

When a crime of bodily harm is committed on a journalist or media actor, that is attributable to the present or past execution of their role, the aggravated crime will be incur increased punishment.

In the case of defamation, court registry fees will not be due by defendants when the reply is filed, but liability to pay those fees will depend on the Court’s final judgment.

When the author or editor dies when civil defamation proceedings are pending, or transferred to the heirs, or where proceedings may still be commenced after the death against the heirs, it will be provided that the Court when deciding on the merits, will not grant damages against the heirs of the deceased author or editor. It will also be entitled to stop proceedings when it considers that the determination as to whether there was in fact defamation, cannot be made in the absence of the deceased author or editor.

We took a very firm stand against the abusive financial and organisational paralysation of journalists, to become one of the first EU countries to introduce anti-SLAPP provisions in the Media and Defamation Act, to the extent possible today without infringing EU law and international law.

We will see that there will be no abuse of procedures aimed at scaring, hindering, or discouraging public participation of journalists and media professionals through the filing of actions in foreign courts that could have been filed in Malta.

Thus, the Maltese Court will limit the execution of a foreign judgment such that the damages and expenses ordered to be paid, will be equivalent to what would have had to be paid according to Maltese law. The government will also reject the execution of the judgment if the Maltese Court determines that it violates the right to freedom of expression as protected in Malta.

In defamation claims deemed “manifestly unfounded” at the start of proceedings, the Court can apply a new ‘early dismissal’ procedure to stop the case when the defendant establishes, prima facie that the case is manifestly unfounded; the burden of proof to the contrary will be then transferred to the claimant.

This government believes journalists must be able to fulfil their democratic role with certainty, which also informs the proposed Constitutional amendments, once approved by the House with the necessary simple, and qualified majority required in each case.

They include provisions recognising the importance of the role of the media and journalists, both in the entrenched and non-entrenched parts of the Constitution; the Constitution will explicitly recognise media freedom, the role of the media as a public watchdog, and the right to practice free journalism; the protection of journalists and their sources will also be elevated to a constitutional level; and the right to privacy will be widened, and the protection of freedom of expression enhanced.

These ground-breaking and innovative amendments will enshrine the duty to respect media freedom and pluralism, and the significance of the journalists’ role in society in the Constitution. Once adopted, they will guarantee a very high level of protection for all media actors.

Like any other reform in a democracy, there will be debate: some believe we could have done more, or done it differently. What is certain is that this reform does much to strengthen the role of journalists, which is why it deserves Parliament’s support.

We will continue implementing the necessary changes to ensure this reform is delivered effectively and efficiently.

Jonathan Attard is minister for justice