Is Maltese journalism at risk? | Norma Saliba

The murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia cast a dark shadow over Malta’s media landscape... already beset by other challenges, such as financial (and sometimes physical) pressure on media houses. PBS journalist and IGM chairperson Norma Saliba argues that the profession needs to be both valued and protected more

The Institute of Maltese Journalists, of which you are current chairperson, held a number of meetings with the Government and the Opposition over the recently tabled amendments to the Press Act. Are you satisfied with the outcome? What were the main issues the IGM wanted to see addressed in the draft law?

When the first draft was tabled before the last election, we as IGM, tried to consult as many stakeholders as possible, so that the voice of journalists, and their ideas, would hopefully end up reflected in the new press law. Because there was a need for this law: it had been in the pipeline for a very long time. And originally, we felt there were a number of things that needed to be amended in the original draft bill. I am pleased to be able to say that the seven amendments we proposed at that stage were all taken on board, in part or in total, in this second draft. So we’re satisfied that our voice was heard on this occasion. And by ‘our voice’ I don’t just mean the IGM’s. We consulted both our own members and also journalists who are not our members. So it’s fair to say that the new draft bill takes on board proposals from the sector as a whole...

What were these proposals, concretely?

The removal of criminal libel, for instance, is something we had been insisting on for a long time. Even my predecessor, Karl Wright, had brought it up on countless occasions.  So it’s a particular satisfaction to us, that something we’ve been demanding for so long has finally been taken on board. Then there’s the capping of damages. In the first draft, the proposed maximum penalties for libel had been doubled, from approximately 11,000 to approximately 22,000. But in the new bill, they are back at the same levels they were before.  Also, there will be the introduction of a mediation system in libel cases. This is important to us, as for one thing it speeds up the judicial process. The former criminal libel system was cumbersome and slow, and cases often dragged on for years. With mediation, there is the possibility of expediting the entire process. On top of that, we insisted on the removal of cautionary mandates [such as garnishee orders] in libel cases; we objected to the proposed registration system for editors, and we insisted on the protection of sources being written into the law. All seven of these proposals have been included in the second draft, and I am informed that it is now a matter of days before it moves on to committee stage.  From our meetings with both the Government and the Opposition, it seems there is consensus over this law. So we hope that it will be enacted as soon as possible, as it is important to progress from words to action. 

Was there anything you proposed that was omitted from this draft?

From this draft, no. But since then we have met with the Government and Opposition again, to make another three proposals... as there is still time for them to be included for discussion. The first concerns aggravation, in the legal sense: that if someone is found guilty of a crime against a journalist carrying out his or her duties, the crime would be considered an aggravated offence, with higher penalties than usual. This already exists for crimes against public officials, or vulnerable categories such as the elderly. We are suggesting that journalists be accorded that same status, in recognition of the essential public service they provide. Secondly, that journalists also be afforded some form of indemnity as added protection. I don’t know, for instance, how many journalists here are covered by an insurance policy: overseas, it is standard practice. We would like to explore the possibility of including a clause in the new law to offer that form of protection to journalists, too. Lastly, there’s the issue of SLAPP. We asked both sides to consider the inclusion of a clause to protect journalists from financial pressures in case of SLAPP lawsuits...

On the subject of SLAPP, when I interviewed Justice Minister Owen Bonnici last week, he argued that the second draft of the new law already caters for ‘SLAPP’ proceedings in Malta... but that he was seeking legal advice on whether it was possible to legislate against rulings by foreign jurisdictions being applied locally. Are you talking about local court rulings, or foreign ones?

As far as I am aware, SLAPP lawsuits do not exist in the location jurisdiction. Even so, however, we asked if there were any ways the local legislation could somehow limit – if this is even possible, first of all – the financial pressure of an overseas libel case. Exactly how or if this can be done is something for experts to decide, but we feel there should be proportionality in libel cases, including in foreign jurisdictions. You have to take the size and circumstances of Malta into consideration. We feel that these circumstances should be reflected in the legal infrastructure. But we’re also aware that there are limits to what Maltese legislation can and cannot do: that’s why we had a meeting with the Justice Minister and the Attorney General. They told us they were seeking legal advice about the issue.

Matters are however slightly complicated by the changing nature of the media themselves. Take blogs, for instance. A blogger may be Maltese, but the blog could very easily be registered in a foreign jurisdiction. And anything published online automatically has a (potential) worldwide readership. The question then arises: why should a Malta-based blog or online news portal be subject only to Maltese laws?

This is something I think needs to be studied in detail. I don’t think there’s a quick and easy solution. That’s the feedback we got from the minister and the AG as well. But it’s still a cause for concern: you cannot allow a situation where journalists can be silenced in the course of his duties, because the work of a journalist is an important pillar of democracy. Journalists have responsibilities, too: they have a responsibility not only to themselves – for the sake of their own professional credibility – but also to those who follow their stories or news broadcasts. Or blogs, for that matter. So I think we need to seriously study the situation with a view to offering better protection to journalists. Journalism is too important to be left unprotected. Without journalism, democracy is weakened...

Earlier you mentioned the issue of insurance policies for working journalists. It is widely known that journalism is a risky profession, and there seem to be indications that it may be getting riskier. Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder was the most extreme case, but there have been various (much less serious) cases of journalists who were assaulted and sometimes injured in the course of their work. Do you see journalism as becoming more dangerous in Malta?

As IGM, we strongly condemned the act that was done to Daphne Caruana Galizia, and will continue to condemn it. It is something that is not just condemnable, but something that... we would never even have imagined getting to that situation in the first place, where someone actually murders a journalist. Now: we feel that in cases where people feel aggrieved by a certain story... or feel that what was published wasn’t true, or caused them damage of a personal or commercial nature...  there are legal remedies people can take. There is the right of reply, and in extreme cases there are the law-courts. That’s where you go when you feel you are in the right. But you have to be in the right. And there has to be some respect for the profession of journalism itself, if not the individual story. So yes, I do feel that journalism is being weakened today by the sort of challenges journalists face on the job. Fewer people are
venturing into the profession. Media houses are finding it difficult to find employees...

Yet journalism is now a taught profession in Malta (it wasn’t when I started out): the university churns out new Communications graduates each year. Are these graduates not finding work within their chosen vocation?

There’s also a new course at MCAST. I’m told the intake this year has been around five students. Compared to other courses, it’s not very much at all. So maybe we need to do some soul-searching here. What’s happening to the journalism profession in Malta? It could be related to conditions of work: because the pay is not attractive enough, for instance. It could be because, as you’re suggesting, the job itself has come to be viewed as risky. It is in the nature of our profession to irritate some people at times, and it is not unheard of for people to take vindictive action. Journalists have had bombs placed outside the door in the past.  Or been threatened or assaulted at the scene of an accident, for instance... but there are other forms of risk involved. A journalist might do a story about a fireworks factory explosion, for example, and have to be present on the site of a catastrophe. That’s risky, too. Even subconsciously, journalists are often ready to face risks that they wouldn’t consider, if they weren’t working on a story... or trying to be the first to break a story. There is a level of risk across the board in this profession:  whether it’s because of delving into political issues, social issues, reporting breaking news... and when it comes to investigative journalists, the risks intensify. I think that, in this profession, we need to explore ways to protect journalists – both financially and personally – but we also need to ask ourselves whether journalists are satisfied with their working conditions.

At the same time, I have often observed a tendency for people to start a career in journalism, only to eventually either get absorbed by some government department’s or politician’s PR team. There seems to be a perception of ‘journalism’ as a stepping-stone towards PR in general... and PR is not merely ‘different’ from journalism. It can even be considered antithetical. Is this a concern for IGM?

There are also some who set up their own PR agencies. It’s not just with government. Many journalists end up doing PR within the private sector, too. But it’s still a case of ‘crossing over to the other side’. Those issues I mentioned, regarding pay and work conditions, may be motivating factors. But at the end of the day, it’s a personal decision. It’s up to the person concerned, to decide what’s more
important to them: whether it’s the job of a journalist, which might not pay very well... but which gives you the satisfaction of knowing that you might be able to make a difference through your work. Or whether you are motivated more by the pay or conditions. It’s not always an easy choice: people’s circumstances are different, and you can’t blame people for trying to better their financial prospects. In a sense I went through it myself: when the company I used to work for experienced financial difficulties, and wasn’t issuing salaries on time, I had to look for alternative employment. I found a job as a media co-ordinator at MEUSAC. I felt I had an advantage, in the sense that the job itself – which involved keeping the public informed – had a lot in common with journalism: I could use my experience, and also learn about journalism from the new perspective. That’s how I looked at it: even though I ended up back in journalism anyway. Because that, ultimately, is the profession that gives me job satisfaction. But any journalist can pass through phases when they feel they’ve lost that sort of ‘adrenaline’ that keeps them going. It could be a period of reflection, after which they regain traction and go back to work with even more determination... or who knows, they might end up changing job. For each individual it will be different...

You mention factors such as pay and conditions – including, presumably, working hours – and also that IGM consults with all stakeholders to try and improve those conditions. These are labour issues, yet IGM itself is an NGO, not a trade union (though it is performing some of a trade union’s functions). Do you feel that a trade union representing journalists in Malta is, in fact, needed? And is IGM moving in that direction?

Even when it came to last year’s discussion on a media code of ethics, we had opened the doors to all journalists – not just our members – to take part in the debate. And other stakeholders too: because journalism affects everyone, not just members of the profession itself. I am very much a believer of ‘strength in unity’... I think a better, more recent example was the ‘Pen Conquers Fear’ campaign after Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder. It was the private initiative of a few journalists, who asked us for our support. We met at our premises, and discussed what we could do, as journalists, to make our voice heard. We came out with that campaign, which I think was a success, as everyone took it on board. I would like, in future, to see more examples of this sort of collegiality. I would like to think that the campaign itself was not just a one-off: that all the media houses might continue to meet once a month, so that the decisions we take, as journalists, will be based on the actual experiences of all the newsrooms.  Having said this, it is too early to say whether we should become a union or not. But when it comes into effect, this new law will give IGM a slightly bigger role: there is consensus between the Government and the Opposition that – instead of the DOI, as originally proposed – it will be the IGM to handle the media registration process.

Is there consensus among all media houses, too?

On that, I can’t answer. But the issue is not whether it’s us, as IGM, who will be responsible for media registration. As things stand today, the responsibility for issuing Press Cards falls under the Department of Information. And the Press Card system itself needs to be revisited: there are practical considerations, such as when and where they are needed/applicable, and who actually recognises them beyond local government authorities. With the new law, they will be issued by an independent entity. To me, that’s already a step forward for journalism. Now, we need to take it a step further. At present, the current term of the IGM council is coming to a close. Our idea is that, at the next AGM, we will propose the inclusion of the amendments that arise from the registration responsibility into our statute, and put it to a council vote. But the idea is to open up more, and become more inclusive: if necessary, by revising our structures in such a way that all media houses would be represented in discussions and decisions. So when an issue that affects the entire profession crops up, it would ideally be discussed by all concerned... and not just by the elected council members, as is the case today.