Press ‘registration’: a red herring for control

Editorial | The idea of a professional warrant for journalists is at minimum a red herring that can be manipulated by any of the powers that be

It has been exactly a month since the public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder presented its conclusions on 29 July; and understandably enough, the media attention has so far focused mainly on its conclusions regarding the culpability of the State. 

But the inquiry also raised a number of other issues: including the call for a police unit entrusted with protecting journalists from intimidation; and also for a Constitutional amendment that recognises free journalism as “a pillar of a democratic society”, and the obligation of the State to protect it. 

There is definitely a lot of merit in these proposals, but as this newspaper has consistently argued for years, in order to strengthen and bolster the work of journalism in Malta, we must first be cognisant of what the real problems (and dangers) are. 

The threat of violence and harassment – both online and offline – is certainly among those problems; and far from the only one. 

As pointed out in the same report, the inquiry also lamented the lack of any protection for journalists from SLAPP lawsuits through which Maltese journalists end up being sued in foreign jurisdictions. Effectively, this amounts to form of censorship; it silences critics by burdening them with the disproportionate cost of a legal defence in a foreign jurisdiction. Yet Maltese law is toothless when it comes to defending local media from SLAPP lawsuits. 

And matters were not helped when government recently voted down an Opposition anti-SLAPP amendment, which proposed that the Maltese courts would have exclusive jurisdiction to hear and determine such proceedings “irrespective of whether the publication in question is hosted or otherwise broadcast from servers located outside Malta”. 

Clearly, this is one recommendation that requires urgent prioritisation. Unfortunately, however, the board did not stop there: it also called for the self-regulation of the profession, in the same way that “accountants, architects and pharmacists” regulate themselves, that is, through professional bodies with the power of enforcing a code of ethics and also disqualifying people from the trade, as it were. 

Unwittingly or otherwise, the inquiry board was in fact floating a suggestion that had already been made – and shot down – in Malta before. During a June 2020 debate on a bill amending the Broadcasting Act, Labour MP Jean Claude Micallef had likewise suggested that “Journalists should require a warrant to practice their profession […] much like other professions – such as lawyers – were.”  

On that occasion, however, numerous voices reacted to the proposal with outright horror. Ġorġ Mallia, who heads the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Malta, even described it as ‘an attack on freedom of expression’: arguing that it was “intended to pave the way for an imposition on the freedom to state one’s opinion freely in a democracy.” 

That is, naturally, debatable. But there can be no doubt that the idea of a professional warrant for journalists is both impractical, and potentially dangerous. At the very minimum, it serves as a kind of red herring that can be easily manipulated by any of the powers that be: to either ignore the real issues facing the future of the press, or else – as suggested by Prof. Mallia – to further control the question of who can, and who cannot, act as a journalist in Malta.   

Suffice it to say that in the world of more accessible data-enabled technology, the act of communication is one of the most radical ways of revealing truth, wherever it maybe. Thanks to modern technology, this capability is no longer in the hands of gatekeepers; and nor would it be democratic to have it in the hands of just a select few.  

So the act of the broadcaster or reporter – who may, in today’s world, even be a social media commentator with a mobile phone in hand – cannot be controlled by a registration system, quite so easily as practising ‘architects’ or ‘accountants’.   

That media workers want to be held up to higher standards of accountability is not in doubt: but the solution to this is neither punitive measures, nor blocking the door to who gets to qualify as a journalist. 

The way to ensure higher standards is to create a charter of trust to which the industry subscribes to; and which must also include a rapid system of conflict resolution, to ensure that truth prevails at all instances – more speedily than in long drawn-out libel cases.   

There is also an argument to be made for the important role that the free press plays in informing people, and helping them make democratic choices. In this sense, the State needs to acknowledge the role of the press by also supporting it financially – whether directly or not. This can come in the form of tax rebates, but also by way of a sustainable financing system that allows the continued and more widespread distribution of news.  

Ultimately, however, decision-makers need to understand what the priority for Maltese media really is.  There is safety at stake, certainly. But there is also the question of a sustainable future for the press to fulfil its role without excessive interference.