IĠM officials threaten to quit from experts committee unless government withdraws weak media Bills

IĠM’s top officials Matthew Xuereb and Kurt Sansone have written to the Prime Minister demanding that Bills on media protection tabled in parliament be withdrawn and opened up for consultation

The legislation tabled by government in parliament has ignored some of the salient proposals made to it by a media experts committee
The legislation tabled by government in parliament has ignored some of the salient proposals made to it by a media experts committee

Two officials from the Institute of Maltese Journalists have threatened to quit from a government-appointed experts’ committee unless media protection legislation tabled in parliament is withdrawn.

Matthew Xuereb and Kurt Sansone, president and general secretary of the IĠM respectively, wrote to Prime Minister Robert Abela on Monday morning to express disappointment with the Bills government put forward last week. The letter was disseminated to the media.

They called for the Bills presented by government to be withdrawn, turned into a White Paper and formally opened up for the widest possible consultation with specified milestones.

“We are sure that consultation could lead to better laws, which will provide the necessary framework to protect journalists and create an enabling environment for freedom of expression to thrive,” they wrote in their letter to the Prime Minister.

However, if government fails to open “meaningful consultation”, the two officials said they will resign from the committee.

“If government fails to open meaningful consultation we will have no option but to withdraw our participation from the Committee of Experts as we cannot continue backing legislation, which is weak and does not achieve the best possible result,” the IĠM officials said.

...the most salient recommendations made by the Committee were ignored or seriously watered down...

Both officials form part of the Committee of Media Experts set up earlier this year by the government in line with a recommendation made by the public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder.

One of the first tasks of the committee was to review and give feedback on legislation proposed by the government to enhance the protection of journalists and strengthen freedom of expression. The feedback was formally delivered on 1 June and just before parliament returned from its summer recess, Justice Minister Jonathan Attard published the Bills, taking on board a substantial part of the feedback but leaving out significant aspects.

Xuereb and Sansone said “the most salient recommendations made by the Committee were ignored or seriously watered down” in the Bills presented by government. Among these were the constitutional entrenchment of the media and journalism as the Fourth Pillar of democracy, and proposed anti-SLAPP legislation.

The two IĠM officials also challenged the government’s narrative that the committee had consulted widely before presenting its feedback to the bills.

“The Committee did not carry out any active consultation, except for a legal opinion from a legal expert. The Committee reviewed any feedback that reached it but no one else was consulted, also due to the tight deadline given for it to finish the first part of its remit,” they wrote.

The Committee was given two months to present its feedback with the process being disrupted by the general election.

“We have consulted our members and others involved in the media sector, who we represent, and took note of their assessment of the proposed laws which your administration has presented in parliament. We concur that the changes are not bold enough and fall short of what we imagined could have been achieved for the protection of journalists and freedom of expression, five years after the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia,” the letter reads.

The two officials also acknowledged criticism on some of the Committee’s work, especially on its proposals regarding anti-SLAPP legislation, which fall short of the EU directive proposed by the European Commission.

“Given that the Maltese government wants to be among the first EU member states to enact anti-SLAPP legislation, it should be setting a gold standard free of ambiguity and providing a strong framework of protection. This is why we truly need an open consultation process,” they wrote.

Xuereb and Sansone added that government has a clear electoral mandate to recognise the media as the Fourth Pillar of democracy. “We believe this mandate should be fulfilled in the best way possible by having robust legislation that is agreeable to the very sector it is intended to protect.”

They added that their actions should in no way be interpreted as reflecting badly on the other members of the experts’ committee.

Xuereb and Sansone gave the Prime Minister until Thursday to reply back, after which they will be taking the matter to the IĠM council for further action.

There have been widespread calls for the government to suspend the parliamentary process and open up a consultation exercise. The latest request was made by the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner and the Media Reform Initiative, a lobby group.

The Committee of Media Experts is chaired by former judge Michael Mallia, who had chaired the Caruana Galizia public inquiry, and includes as members, apart from the two IĠM officials, academics Carmen Sammut and Saviour Formosa, lawyer Kevin Dingli, MediaToday owner Saviour Balzan and Neil Camilleri, a journalist and former editor of The Malta Independent.

Read the letter below: