A track record that speaks for itself

Proposals on media reform were launched earlier this year. Though well received by the public then, overall, the feedback was that some polishing needed to be done

Earlier this year the Government launched a number of proposals on media reform. The goal was a freer, simpler and modern framework which provided more space for journalists to do their job, while strengthening legislation to reflect changes in society. The proposals were well-received by the public then - both formally and informally we were told that this was a good basis to start the consultation period.

Of course, there was the usual partisan cacophony which was saying that Government was out to eradicate basic freedoms. Any chance to paint us as some third-world dictators. We simply moved forward by working with the stakeholders in the field – the people working in the media. Overall, the feedback was that some polishing needed to be done.

We clearly stated early on that we were open to and after some time we published the new proposals this week. I think this process was an example of the irrelevance of mindless tribal politics, and that ultimately people will judge you not on how much you talk, but on how much you do. 

The proposals

The new proposals state that serious reputational damage must be caused from an allegation or statement to be marked as libellous. Criminal libel will be removed from legislation relating to media, including those which deter from the principle of freedom of expression. This will ensure that we offer maximum protection for journalists. From the previous proposals the Government also removed the increases in libel fines.

If you look at libel cases a good amount of them end up in a very mature manner. Usually one party either admits they stepped over the line or it is an open and shut case. In such circumstances a preliminary hearing will take place so as not to drag out the process. In some cases there will be the possibility of mediation. More often than not, the libelled individual will only need an apology and for that statement to be struck off, to safeguard one’s reputation. If the other side sees this as acceptable, it doesn’t make sense for a prolonged procedure to take place. 

Something that the Government was aware of, especially when you consider the realities of the publishing industry, is that libel fines can sometimes be hard on a media outlet. A substantial fine could potentially wreck its operations. So the court will have to study the ramifications of what that particular fine will have on the media outlet. The last thing we want is for powerful individuals with bottomless pockets to bully a newspaper into submission through hefty fines. These are the sort of checks and balances mechanisms that safeguard democratic fundamentals.     

Online portals never featured in previous media legislation but the proposals provide stronger protection to them, especially relating to comments posted beneath their articles.

The proposals relating to the infamous media register have been amended following the feedback we’ve received. Again, even here, our track record speaks for itself. We said we were open to sensible changes and we did just that. I think we suffer from the cynicism of previous governments, which treated consultation periods in an artificial manner.

After four years people haven’t understood that our consultation is a real one. Application with the media register will be on a voluntary basis and it won’t apply to online media. The idea that the registry might be managed from the media itself, rather than Government, is also being considered. Since the law never catered for online portals, there were some grey areas built up over the years.

We are making sure that those involved have the full protection as the rest of their colleagues. This includes the protection of the source, one of the most important elements of journalism, which has been extended to all editors, publishers, authors or operator of websites and other media outlets.

Sensible discussion

This process exemplified what a sober and mature democracy should look like. A democracy that is alive and offers solutions to today’s challenges. Neither Minister Owen Bonnici, who led this initiative, nor myself, witnessed any hysterics in discussions with stakeholders, including journalists. What we did find was open discussion and when they were critical, it was done in a healthy and level-headed manner.

The result is proposed legislation which strengthens our country and which allows Malta to become a leader in this area. Some of the proposals are more forward-looking than others found in countries which are renowned for the liberties. 

Partisan politics is part of life. Elections and votes are decided by partisan and political ideas and visions. But in the meantime it shouldn’t hold us back from doing some good where possible. When we allow the weight of tribal politics to crush us, it also crushes the common good. This is another chapter where it would’ve been nice to have some bi-partisan support to create a media landscape that we can all be proud of.

But it was not to be, because it doesn’t correlate with the ridiculous narrative of the now-leaderless Nationalist establishment, that the Government is evil and a big brother. In the meantime, a lot has been achieved and we go in front of the public with proposals that bring real change and strengthen our democracy. 

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