New press laws worthless in ‘climate of fear, threats and insults’ - Simon Busuttil

The former PN leader said in parliament that the newly-proposed press law was good on paper, but did not reflect that which society was experiencing on a daily basis

Parliament started to debate the newly-draft media bill this evening
Parliament started to debate the newly-draft media bill this evening

Nationalist MP Simon Busuttil has insisted that while the proposed amendments to the country’s press laws were positive, the law was useless when one considered what he said was a “climate of fear, threats and insults”, that had gripped the country.

Speaking in parliament as the two sides of the house started debating the newly-drafted media bill, Busuttil said that that following the first bill presented by the government during the last legislature, it had done well to give more importance to freedom of expression in its second draft.  

“This law as presented again, is a law that is a step in the right direction,” he said. “We are looking at it through a different lens because there are a number of changes we consider to be positive.”

Despite the changes, he questioned what use the law would be “given that freedom of expression in Malta was killed”.

Referring to comments by Justice Minister Owen Bonnici earlier in the debate, Busuttil said it was ironic for Bonnci to say that hate speech was bad, while Bedingfield – who runs what the former PN leader described as “one of the most hateful blogs in Malta”.

He said that despite the proposed law, the government had seized control over the country’s media, insisting that it regularly bought independent media houses using advertising revenue.

Similarly, Karl Gouder, also Nationalist MP, said that the opposition was in agreement with the provisions of the law, and insisted that despite the minister’s claims, the first draft had been a “disastrous one”, and an attempt by the government to control the media.

Turning to the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia last month, Gouder stressed that authorities had an obligation to protect any individual with information that could embarrass people in power.

“All normal countries protect people like this so I appeal to the government to protect them and let them expose the information they have,” said Gouder.

Press laws to strengthen the country’s democracy

In his opening remarks, Bonnici said that the new laws were a part of the government’s plan to strengthen the county’s democracy and increase freedom of expression.

Bonnici said that the government had listened to criticism received over its first draft earlier in the year, pointing to the registration of editors and the increase in libel penalties as having been the two aspects of the previous bill that were of greatest concern.

He said the government had understood that many media houses faced great financial constraints and would be more vulnerable if libel penalties were to be increased. Moreover, he said that the new draft had taken into account the fact that many had considered the registration of editors to be intrusive.

“We understood this might have been interpreted as interference, or a disincentive for one to express themselves,” he said, adding that even those who today were obliged to register could now choose not to.

Bonnici explained that there were 18 main changes being proposed including the removal of criminal libel, the removal of precautionary warrants from libel cases, an update to the libel defences, the introduction of the concept of slander, as well as precluding an individual from opening more than one libel case against a journalist over the same accusations in different stories.  

Bonnici also said that the media registry would no longer be falling under the Office of the Prime Minister, while urging the Institute of Maltese Journalists to step forward and take on the responsibility of regulating the register itself.

The minister also stressed that once the new law comes into force, all pending cases of criminal libel would be dropped.

Before presenting the law in parliament, Bonnici said he had asked for feedback from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which he said had commended the removal of criminal libel, and noted that the new law included a number of “remarkable provisions “.

“Had this been an exam, we would have been awarded an A+ Mr. Speaker,” said Bonnici.

Media not building stories on truth – Glenn Bedingfield

Government MP Glenn Bedingfield pointed to the fact that statistics had shown that the Maltese nation tended to trust the government more than it did the media.

“This is definitely not the government’s, fault but the media’s,” he said, adding that in many cases, the media was not building stories on the basis of the truth.

He then took aim at the Church’s media wing, which he accused of only “looking out for the interests of one party”.