Caruana Galizia inquiry board proposes police unit to protect journalists

Constitutional amendments should recognise journalism as pillar of democracy and the state’s obligation to protect media workers

Journalists from all  media houses gathered in Valletta in October 2017 after the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia
Journalists from all media houses gathered in Valletta in October 2017 after the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia

A board of inquiry appointed to investigate the circumstances leading to the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, has called for the appointment of a police unit entrusted with protecting journalists from intimidation.

It called for the consideration of a constitutional amendment that recognises free journalism as “a pillar of a democratic society” and the obligation of the State to protect it.

The inquiry described the “defamation and dehumanization campaign” directed against Daphne Caruana Galizia as in itself “a criminal act” and called on the State to protect journalists from similar acts as well as “surveillance which is characteristic of totalitarian states”.

The inquiry said police unit “well versed in media law and the value of journalism” should be specifically set up to protect journalists from intimidation, harassment, and insults and hate crimes.

It also proposes an increase in penalties when these acts are directed against journalists.

The report referred to the need of a formal structure in the police force entrusted with identifying which persons, not exclusively journalists, are exposed to serious dangers, which can escalate into physical violence. This responsibility is currently the prerogative of the police commissioner.

Apart from calling for greater protection for journalists the report also calls on the police to promptly investigate “serious allegations” made in journalistic reports.

While recognising the improvement brought about by the new media and defamation law approved in 2018, which removed criminal libel, the inquiry lamented the lack of any protection for journalists from SLAPP lawsuits through which Maltese journalists end up being sued in foreign jurisdictions.

While noting that the issue is being debated on a European level, the inquiry said that “nothing stops” the Maltese parliament from protecting journalists.

The report proposes the creation of an independent Ombudsman or a Commission for journalistic ethics, on the same lines as the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life. This would be “a point of reference for journalists who want direction or protection, but also a means to ensure the observance of the Rules of Ethics for Journalists.”

It also calls for the self-regulation of the profession in the same way that “accountants, architects and pharmacists” regulate themselves through professional bodies with the power of enforcing a code of ethics.

The board observed a need for revision of the Freedom of Information Act, which could arbitrarily refuse to provide information which is in the public interest and to which the public had a right. “The culture of confidentiality and secrecy with the excuse of privacy or commercial prejudice has little to do with democracy when it comes to the administration of public wealth which should always be transparent and accountable.”

Referring to the precarious financial situation reported by editors, the report calls for more transparency on the allocation of advertising by public authorities, to avoid discrimination between different outlets and avoid undue pressure or blackmail by government agencies that could withdraw funding.

It also calls for in-depth examination of the state of journalism through the appointment of a committee of experts, composed of academics, media law experts, journalists and owners of media houses with the task of drafting specific recommendations which would then be tabled in Parliament.