‘Time to end criminal libel’ | Karl Wright

Journalist Karl Wright takes over the Institute of Maltese Journalists, which has had 14 years of uncontested leadership. Criminal libel and a bid to help the Institute overcome journalists’ scepticism top his agenda

IGM chairman Karl Wright (Photo: Ray Attard)
IGM chairman Karl Wright (Photo: Ray Attard)

The most acclaimed American newspaper editor of all times, Joseph Pulitzer, once said: “Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light.”

Pulitzer was also known for his combined exposés of political corruption and crusading investigative reporting with publicity stunts, blatant self-advertising, and sensationalistic journalism. Perhaps it was no coincidence that he would soon be considered as the father of the ‘modern newspaper’.

Two centuries later, it is evident that newspapers still follow up on Pulitzer’s advice in the presentation of news. Perhaps what Pulitzer did not foresee was the advent of online media and how the face of journalism would change once and for all. 

“It is the constant battle of accuracy versus being first with the story,” says Karl Wright, newly elected [and uncontested] chairman of the Institute of Maltese Journalists.

“Online media has brought with it challenges to both journalists and the operations of media houses. There is the conflict between immediacy and precision. I remember a time where a journalist used to take his time to write a meticulous article, with enough time to collect and verify the news.

“The dailies today have to keep coming up with something different to survive: if a news story surfaces at 6pm, journalists scramble to find that one thing that will make their article different from the others the following morning.”

As some of us may know too well, haste makes waste: only yesterday, GWU-owned daily l-orizzont was forced to issue an apology after it mistakenly published a photo of an individual, reporting him as having suffered gunshot wounds in Libya. 

“These are mistakes made as a result of running against time. I fear that we have reached a point where journalists have developed a frame of mind of ‘publish first and correct later’.” 

Aged 35, Wright – a working journalist – takes over from PR man Malcolm J. Naudi who presided over the IGM for the past 14 years. He admits that, despite having had very little contact with IGM over the years, his appointment as chairman wasn’t a long drawn affair.

The first time he ever submitted an article for an award was last year. His interest in IGM developed as soon as he became a fulltime journalist two years ago. “Just like I’m interested in the work I do, I am interested in this institute because it is the organ that represents us journalists,” he says, adding that he couldn’t fathom how even social events outside work for journalists were never organised.

The task ahead of him is not easy, especially in his bid to convince journalists that the IGM is in synch with journalists.

In fact, Wright is currently organising meetings with media houses in a bid to get more journalists on board and help revamp the institute.

“There are many things which we can do... I don’t want to rush things but there are certain issues that will be given priority and then slowly move forward with others. I believe that when journalists will see for themselves the results that we will achieve, their support towards the IGM will grow and it will also translate into a sense of ownership.”

Recognised by both journalists and the government, one of the most pressing issues is criminal libel. In 2013, Freedom House ranked Malta 22nd and listed as shortcomings Malta’s prosecution of offences against the Roman Catholic religion, criminal defamation, and the then as-yet-to-be implemented freedom of information law.

Criminal libel allows injured parties to file criminal complaints with the police on defamation, without having to pay for the institution of civil proceedings or lawyers.

In the run up to the 2013 general election, then opposition leader Joseph Muscat had pledged to review the law. Last year, the IGM announced that a White Paper reforming the Press Act this year would propose the removal of criminal libel.

“Criminal libel has to end,” Wright says point blank. “I have already instructed a correspondence be sent to the [justice] minister to set up a meeting. The IGM must be consulted before a draft bill is issued. 

“The previous IGM administration did a lot of work but now it is time to act and I promise to push for results by the end of year. It however doesn’t depend all on me but also on the government.”

Wright is also optimistic about the possibility of pushing for mediation in civil libels. A form of facilitated negotiation assisted by an independent neutral party, mediation is already used in other camps. “We wouldn’t be reinventing the wheel and there are today attempts to mediate when libel suits are filed. Perhaps we need to have a proper structure in place.”

Unlike other entities representing workers in a particular professional field, the IGM is neither a union nor a professional association. Sceptical by nature, a good number of journalists – not to say all – are equally sceptical on how much the journalists’ institute can exit the limbo it is in currently.

Wright doesn’t fully agree with the description, arguing that the impression that the IGM was in a limbo depended on how one viewed it. “We do want to prove that the IGM is not just a talking shop or publicised only for holding the yearly awards,” he says, adding that the awards were equally important but there should be more to the institute.

Wright insists that the IGM awards are an opportunity for journalists to showcase their work. Asked whether the system should change, whereby a board nominates journalists rather than journalists nominating themselves, Wright says nothing should be ruled out.

“I found the system as it is but it doesn’t mean it can’t be changed. However, the present system can’t be rubbished off. But yes, this could be another opportunity for journalists to express their opinion and be the authors of change within the IGM.”

He adds that one should not forget that the journalist’s right to protect a source was only achieved thanks to the IGM.

Wright however does admit that the line of communication between the IGM and the journalists was not strong enough: “How many journalists are aware that the IGM was working with MCAST to develop a specialised course for journalists? The syllabus has been prepared and there are also plans for the course to include a newsroom as preparation.”

One question that roams is why a union for journalists never kicked off: “That is a question I can’t answer because, like you, I have raised the same question.”

Having served as vice president of the Malta Union of Teachers for five years, Wright also enjoys a trade unionistic background. Pointing out that it was never the intention of the IGM to become a union, Wright said it was clear from the institute’s statute that it could never be a union. 

He however admits he has reservations on how ‘well’ journalists would function together in a union.

“It’s not just about a high level of competitiveness – which is healthy for the sector – but because everyone has their own circle and operates from their own pedestal. I really don’t know how the model of a union as I know it would function.” 

I point out that a journalist, at the end of the day, is like any other worker employed with a company doing his job.

“But what role can a union hold when one journalist attacks another? The concept of a trade union is usually to defend a concept when this is under threat by someone else... Better communication is something which journalists should work on. It’s not about doing away with competition but respecting each other. Ethics would push for discussion, not air dirty laundry in the public.”

Recently, the IGM denounced comments made by lawyer Joseph Zammit Maempel in court during a libel case in which he denigrated witness Saviour Balzan, as “in need of psychiatric care”. Balzan was testifying in libel proceedings filed against a MaltaToday journalist by police inspector Elton Taliana about an article linking the inspector to arson attacks on Balzan’s residence at the time. 

In a statement, the Institute said comments by Zammit Maempel to Balzan, calling him “paranoid” and “in need of psychiatric care” went beyond his competence as a lawyer and lacked respect towards the journalist. 

“The IGM augurs that respect reigns in both words and actions where there is any disagreement or argumentation,” the institute said.

Wright says that, without going into the merits of the case, the Institute wanted to send a simple message to emphasise the value of respect.

“We may not be a union but we can talk on principles and lead by example. If we’re saying there must be respect between professions, let us practise it. The recent statement issued by the IGM, was to send a message that we value respect, irrespective of our differences.”

The institute has been considering the option to push for discussions with the government and the Department of Information whereby the IGM would become the authorised entity to issue press cards. 

As things stands today, a reference letter by an editor is sufficient for a press card to be issued. Whether an individual is a practising journalist or not, a press card is dispensed, including temporary ones. 

A temporary press card issued to former Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando in 2008 is a textbook example. Issued by the DOI, Pullicino Orlando had used his temporary press card to pose as a journalist for a direct encounter with Labour leader Alfred Sant on television during a Broadcasting Authority debate. 

Wright agrees that it is high time that the matter should be pushed higher on the agenda and a decision be taken. He confirms that it was one of the matters discussed during his first meeting with the institute’s councillors.

He goes on to explain that there are different categories and therefore, coming up with guidelines, would be imperative: “We have full-time and part-time journalists and then there are those who host programmes but are not journalists; there are the freelancers; the videographers and photojournalists. And then there are those individuals who don’t work in the field at all but still have a press card.”

Wright admits that there was real concern over the quality of students applying to become journalists, adding to the repeated criticism against the present credits offered at the University of Malta.

“We see it every time we try to employ someone new… the course at University is what it is and that is why we are holding discussions with MCAST. The syllabus was developed with people in journalism,” he says, adding that one would expect the course to cover all aspects, including languages. 

“It is extremely important for journalists to be at the top of the game, especially now that citizen journalism has become so popular. Everyone can practically become a journalist simply by bumping into something, pull out your smartphone, take a picture or a video and post it online.”

Wright however says one can’t simply “switch” and become a journalist – on the other hand, it is a profession one grows into. “It’s about showing initiative and be able to diversify, whether you’re covering press conferences, investigating your own stories, covering parliament or court.”

He says that quality journalism is even more important today that readers and viewers have a wider array of media from where to choose.

As a journalist working for the Church’s media, Wright refutes the suggestion that his place of work could interfere with decisions that he would need to take at IGM. “On a personal level, my employer never interfered in how I conducted my work. The Church never tells me ‘ask this’ or ‘do that’. Obviously, we discuss our editorial lines but I’ve never experienced interference. But at the end of the day, the decisions that need to be taken at the IGM are not ‘Karl’s decision’, but that of the institute and its councillors.”

Wright also admits that the IGM needs a stronger female presence, admitting that the zero presence of women at council meetings was also something that had to change.