Journalists' code of ethics on Parliamentary agenda

Parliamentary committee for the re-codification of the laws agrees to initiate process to set up code of ethics for journalists.

The Parliamentary committee for the re-codification and consolidation of laws this afternoon agreed to start a process involving representatives of all media houses in order to set up a code of ethics for all journalists.

The committee also discussed whether journalists have a right to withhold their sources when involved in a libel case. Lawyer and former Broadcasting Authority chief, Kevin Aquilina said that although the Press Act gives journalists protection in such instances, other legislation including the criminal code state otherwise and cancel out the provisions protecting journalists.

Education Ministry advisor Fr Joe Borg said the abuse of the freedom of expression by the press is very dangerous especially when new online technologies are used and it becomes hard to trace the author. He insisted that journalists should impose more self-regulation.

The committee's chairman Franco Debono floated the idea that journalists should only be allowed to practice their profession only if they are in the possession of a warrant. "A lack of accreditation and regulation creates a dangerous vacuum."

On the proposal to have a warrant issued for journalists, Nationalist MP Zammit Dimech said "nobody needs a warrant to speak."

In an odd intervention, lawyer Joe Zammit Maempel said it was hard to trace down editors of online news portals because their names are not public. Labour MP Jose Herrera said this was illegal as names of editors have to be made public.

Zammit Maempel said persons working on a regular basis for a newspaper should not be automatically considered as a journalist if they do not have any formal training. Lawyer and journalist Joe Mifsud said it is hard to define who is a journalist and who is not. "Anybody can carry out the function of a journalist especially through the use of social media, and some people can see things out there which journalists do not see."

Mediatoday managing editor Saviour Balzan said that while he agreed that some kind of control and regulation should be in place, there was a great lacuna in Maltese journalism. "This has nothing to do with legislation but it is about ethics."

A proposal which was met with general consensus was the idea to have a stronger code of ethics established. "All media houses should be bound to a code of ethics which will at least place everyone on a level playing field on an ethical level. The Press Ethics Commission should be a regulated body as it is in the UK and I feel that regulation is much needed in Malta," Balzan said.

He said the University of MAlta has never held a meeting with media editors in order to shape the communications course: "there must be concerted effort between the University of Malta and established media houses."

"I would rather grant bloggers the freedom to say whatever they want then control them and deny that freedom."

He added that a Press Ethics Commission should have legal powers. "In the UK if a journalist is reprimanded by the commission the journalist will face serious consequences. However in Malta if a journalist is sanctioned by court or by a commission, the journalist does not suffer any consequence apart from the financial aspect."

On the fact that that all libel cases are assigned to a single magistrate Balzan said: "It is wrong to have one magistrate hearing all libel cases." Debono expressed his disagreement to this and said he agrees with this method of adjudication as it favours court specialisation.  

In a previous committee sitting MPs Franco Debono and Jose' Herrera agreed that criminal libel should be removed as part of a reform of the libel law while the other committee member Francis Zammit Dimech said that while he agreed in principle, there should be safeguards where compensation under civil law was not possible.

Debono had stated that that while criminal libel should be removed, civil damages upon conviction for libel should be raised because people's reputations could be ruined by libel. He pointed out that, damage could now be more severe than before through the use of internet.

TV presenter Peppi Azzopardi said anybody can obtain a Department of Information press card if it is signed by an editor. "It is about time to have this press card issued after having the application vetted by some sort of commission."

The Xarabank anchor also expressed his disagreement with the publication of the names of persons accused of a crime and arraigned in court. Balzan retorted that public persons accused of any wrongdoing or is being investigated should resign his post, at least temporarily until the case is concluded.

Joe Mifsud said court decisions barring the publication of names should not be based on who the person is but should everybody should be treated equally.

Bizarrely, Joe Azzopardi described political party owned television stations in Malta as "a celebration of democracy." He said the media in Malta is more democratic than other countries because the media is not owned by the rich.

Joe Pirotta, the Public Broadcasting Services (PBS) editorial board editor expressed his outright disagreement to this and said Malta is the anomaly in Europe with the majority of television stations owned by political party which he said distorts the national media landscape.