Media Bill debate in Parliament gets lost in translation

Will MPs invent a new Maltese word for slander? This could be the solution to the impasse created over a proposed media and defamation law after no agreement was reached on the Maltese translation

Members of Parliament could not agree on the terminology and definitions used in the Media and Defamation Bill and had to postpone taking a vote on two articles of the proposed law.

The disagreement included the Maltese translation of certain words.

The Bill was being debated in Parliament's Consideration of Bills committee where Opposition members Therese Comodini Cachia, Jason Azzopardi and Karol Aquilina raised concerns over the terminology used in the proposed law.

MPs decided not to take a vote on the relevant clauses until agreement is reached on the terms to be used.

Commodini Cachia said that the term ‘defamatory words’ was not appropriate, as it could be the case that statements or images are found to be defamatory, and not individual words.

Justice Minister Owen Bonnici, who is piloting the Bill said he had no issue with the terms ‘declaration’ and ‘expression’ being used instead of ‘words’ in the Bill.

But Azzopardi did not agree with the Maltese translations for the words ‘defamation’, and ‘slander’, as he suggested the two were synonymous.

Attorney General Peter Grech said that the definitions within the law were such because the Bill included, for the first time ever, the concept of slander in Maltese law. The concept of slander, he said, refers to malicious statements, while defamation refers to statements which are libelous.

Bonnici tried solving the impasse by insisting that he had no problem inventing a new Maltese word for ‘slander’.

"The team of experts decided to use the English law as the first law since it is a progressive law that respects freedom of speech," Bonnici said.

The minister objected to Comodini Cachia’s comment that the Bill was a "copying exercise", since it did change a lot. "There were amendments following discussions with OSCE, and there was agreement to widen it so that there are more things that can be considered defamatory," he said.

Commodini Cachia said that if the government thought that the Bill should apply not only to words but also images, the Opposition agreed, but insisted that this had to be clear in the law. "It is not clear in the law. I will always be on the side of freedom of expression," she said.

In the current law - the Press Act - it was the editor and author who would be held responsible, and not the publisher, for defamatory statements, and the law was not clear on whether the publisher can directly be held responsible, the Attorney General said. With the Bill, the publisher or owner of a media house would only be held responsible if the editor or author could not be found or identified.

Here, Commodini Cachia said that a clarification was necessary that made it clear 'publisher' refers to the owner of the media house and not the printer.

PN MP Karol Aquilina raised the concern that the Bill could be used to apply to social media, in which case a defamatory comment would lead to the owner of the platform to be held responsible, since there is no editor involved.

The Attorney General said that up until this point, defamatory statements – even if true – could not be made if they were not connected to public life. “If there is no public interest, the issue of privacy laws would come into play,” he said.

With the new Bill, true statements made about private persons who happen to find themselves in situations which are of public interest, even if defamatory, could be defended by the editor. The Opposition did not object to this. Commodini Cachia did, however, say that the word 'true' should be changed to 'substantially true'.

The committee is scheduled to meet again on 12 March. Other MPs who took part in the debate were parliamentary secretaries Julia Farrugia Portelli and Clifton Grima, PL MP Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi, who chaired the committee, and PN MP Karl Gouder.

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