This is a time to uphold freedom of expression, not curtail it

It is not only freedom of the press that is at stake here, but also the consequences that can be visited upon the free expression of a person carrying out a necessary and public-interest act of broadcasting and journalism

In Parliament on Monday, Labour MP Jean Claude Micallef resuscitated the bizarre proposal that journalism should be regulated by means of a warrant: in the same way as other professions – for instance, doctors and lawyers – already are.

Micallef specifically argued that a warrant system – which is effectively a licence to practice journalism, issued by the government of the day - would ‘help raise standards in journalism’.

What he failed to mention, however, is that unlike other professions, journalism exists in part to scrutinise the government of the day, and hold it to public account.

Like others who have made similar arguments in the past, Micallef overlooks the somewhat glaring conflict of interest that would arise, if the State were to regulate the very profession that is supposed to keep it in check.

But the proposal is also as ill-timed as it is ill-conceived: coming when Micallef’s own government has been under fire (among others, by Reporters Without Borders) for allegedly attempting to muzzle, and even intimidate the free press.

A case in point was when journalists were locked in a room at Castille on 29 November 2019: following a six-hour emergency Cabinet meeting held in the early hours of the morning. This unsightly incident was strongly criticised by the Institute of Maltese Journalists at the time, and even raised questions at Council of Europe level.

Even if it was not Micallef’s intention, his proposal sits awkwardly against the backdrop of a government that has already courted criticism and controversy over its handling of the free press.

Besides, one must also factor in the specific context: i.e., that of a country which was recently shocked and outraged by the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia: a journalist who was uncovering government corruption at the time of her death.

Arguably, this is a climate in which no government decision on the warranting of journalists can possibly be justified. In this respect, the Labour government requires some self-awareness and humility, and to step back from kite-flying such proposals from its young and inexperienced MPs.

In our climate, such a proposal can only betray the wish for Labour to curtail the free act of journalism, so that non-warranted journalists or bloggers - or any such citizen-powered opinion-maker - could have their freedoms limited.

What we need to talk about instead is how to create a climate of deterrence against the harassment of journalists. This includes aggravated penalties for the harassment of journalists while in discharge of their duties, and aggravated penalties for sustained acts of harassment, stalking and trolling of journalists.

In 2017, a survey published by the Council of Europe showed that journalists in Europe are often exposed to serious unwarranted interference in their work, including intimidation and violence. As a consequence, many also suffer from fear, which frequently leads to self-censorship.

Almost one-third of respondents had experienced physical assault over a period of three years. But the most common interference, reported by 69% of the journalists, was psychological violence, including intimidation, threats, slandering and humiliation.

The survey also found high levels of self-censorship. One in five said that they felt pressured to present their reports in ways which are more amenable to their employers.

Many felt compelled to tone down controversial stories (31%), withhold information (23%) or abandon stories altogether (15%). However, 36% of journalists said that the pressures they experienced made them more committed to resist censorship, whether from outside forces or self-imposed.

Meanwhile, the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia – and especially the role of actors closely aligned to the Maltese government, if not directly implicated people in power and their aides  - shows the danger in which the practice of journalism in Malta can be without a necessary climate of deterrence.

It is not only freedom of the press that is at stake here, but also the consequences that can be visited upon the free expression of a person carrying out a necessary and public-interest act of broadcasting and journalism.

The same goes for the threat of SLAPP actions: the Maltese government should be spearheading efforts to assist MEPs seeking a law that prevents SLAPP suits from being deliberately used to come down hard on newspapers and journalists: by using expensive court action and forum-shopping to inflict unaffordable court and legal expenses on news organisations.

In brief, MPs like Jean Claude Micallef should be seeking ways of raising the professional standards of their own government, when it comes to creating a climate in which journalists can practice their profession freely, and in safety.