Front Against Censorship: Media bill contradicts Labour's electoral manifesto

Government urged to refine proposed media bill to ensure a full ban of criminal libel, and Labour’s commitment to remove censorship laws

Front Against Censorship spokespersons Mark Camilleri (left) and Ingram Bondin
Front Against Censorship spokespersons Mark Camilleri (left) and Ingram Bondin

In its proposed Media and Defamation Act, the Government was proposing changes which contradict the principles which informed its electoral manifesto, particularly those regarding its commitment to the removal of censorship laws, the Front Against Censorship claimed on Saturday. 

"Although we can concede that the bill is, in some respects, an improvement on the current situation, it also entails a number of setbacks," the front said. 

Spokesman Mark Camilleri welcomed the removal of obscene libel and the fact that garnishees will no longer be issued in civil libel cases. 

"However, we take exception to the increase in damages which can be awarded for cases of civil libel, and that the Bill has completely failed in its stated aim of removing criminal libel," he said. 

The Front is contesting the steep hike in damages for civil libel – from €11,646.87 to €20,000. 

"The Front also feels it must express its dissatisfaction with the compulsory registration of news agencies, the new restrictions on the protection of sources, and the failure to remove laws prohibiting criticism of the President."

Camilleri said that while the Front welcomed the fact that the Government seemed to be open to the suggestion of amending the bill, it would refuse to compromise over issues of principle.

He said that the removal of obscene libel had been proposed by the Front itself and was another step in the right direction, along with the removal of theatre censorship, the removal of the law against the vilification of religion and the transformation of the pornography law into an extreme pornography law. 

"We believe that the censorship regime over the arts has now been effectively dismantled by these measures," Camilleri said.

Camilleri said these damages were too high and argued that the harm done to an individual’s reputation must always be weighed against the benefit which society draws from the existence of a free press. 

"The scale of the damages will not only discourage newspapers from touching upon sensitive issues, but also threatens the viability of an independent press, with negative effects on media pluralism and democracy," he said. 

Camilleri noted that no effort was made to ensure that the damages were proportional to the means of a particular organ of the press. The resulting Bill was thus classist, he said, rendering freedom of expression the exclusive privilege of well-financed media houses which can afford to absorb such losses.

"Furthermore, the Front observes that it has not been shown that the revenue of the press has increased proportionally to the increase in damages," Camilleri said. "Without such an economic calculation, the argument stating that the amount of damages are merely being updated to reflect the present times has failed to be backed up by any evidence."

One could equally well say that this is simply a pretext for making the law more repressive than it presently was, he said. 

Camilleri said that the last part of Article 9 of the Bill was a dangerous provision whose aims were unclear. 

This part of the article states that in addition to the damages for civil libel, further damages can be awarded in line with any legislation providing for actual loss, including loss of earnings. 

"The fact that this provision is part of Article 9 indicates it has other aims than those of commercial libel, pointing to the possibility that it is meant to provide for damages which go beyond the scope of redress for defamation," Camilleri said. 

He said the Front was not satisfied with the reform of criminal libel and noted that the article regulating criminal defamation (Article 252 of the Criminal Code) would not be removed. Instead, it was being amended in a confusing manner. 

"Those found guilty under Article 252 are still facing a fine or imprisonment of up to three months, and although the amendment removes criminal defamation when this is performed through 'writing, drawing or other means', it does not do so when criminal defamation is performed through 'words, gestures, insults or other means'," Camilleri said. 

"If the intention of the legislator was to remove criminal defamation  in the case of writing, the legislator has failed in this aim since 'other means' also includes writing."

Ingram Bondin said the legislator was also going beyond the current law by including the word 'insults' in the forms which have to be considered when determining whether criminal defamation has been committed. 

"The Front believes that this inclusion was misguided and could result in the application of criminal defamation to a wider category of expression than would otherwise have been the case," he claimed. 

Bondin said the Front was also against the provision which grants protection of sources only to registered news services or to journalists who practice on a full-time or part-time basis.

The Front, he said, does not understand why article 72 of the Criminal Code, relating to offences committed when raising various forms disaffection towards the President, was not being repealed in its entirety. 

"It is inconceivable that a person should be fined or granted a prison sentence of one to three months for showing various forms of disapproval towards the President," Bondin said.  

"In a Republic where all citizens are equal in front of the law, the President should not protected from criticism in this way, especially since the holder of this Office is allowed to take political stances and promote causes which find his or her favour," he said.