‘Caruana Galizia told court she wanted DOI registration as web editor’, Bonnici says

Minister: online editors and journalists have asked to have DOI recognition to take responsibility for news websites • Peppi Azzopardi agrees with criminal libel

Saviour Balzan discusses pros and cons of the proposed Media Act with PN's Clyde Puli and Justice Minister Owen Bonnici
Saviour Balzan discusses pros and cons of the proposed Media Act with PN's Clyde Puli and Justice Minister Owen Bonnici

Justice minister Owen Bonnici has defended the need for editors of online news websites to register their names as responsible editors-in-chief with a media registrar, saying he failed to understand the criticism of a practice already the norm with print editors and the broadcast media, who are registered with the DOI.

Speaking on TVM’s Xtra, Bonnici said that even Malta Independent columnist Daphne Caruana Galizia had once stated during a court libel that she had asked to be registered with the DOI, but the Press Act did not make allowances for news portals or news websites.

He was quoting the proceedings of a libel case of 30 November 2015, when Caruana Galizia told Magistrate Francesco Depasquale that the DOI had turned down the request.

In the transcript which Bonnici read out, Caruana Galizia assumes responsibility for her website, but said she had asked the DOI to be registered as the editor of the website “and they literally did not let me because, they said, there as no system in place for website… But I want to be recognised. Maybe someone … I cannot do anything about it, but my situation …”

Bonnici said this testimony clearly revealed that editors of online news portals wanted to be recognised as such, and he could therefore not understand the hype and criticism against the proposal, even from Caruana Galizia.

“Now that I’ve proposed a measure granting her what she had been asking for, she’s comparing me to Vladimir Putin,” he said.

The measure, Bonnici stressed, did not apply for all websites and the new Media and Defamation Bill itself clearly stated it would only apply in the case of editors of news portals and news websites which regularly publish news and current affairs articles.

Saviour Balzan pointed out that, even without a registration system in place, practically everyone was aware who the editors of the various news portals were. So should they not be officially recognised?

“Personally, I am against the idea of registration, especially since we are now living in an information society with people spending a lot of time on the internet,” Nationalist MP Clyde Puli said.

Puli said academics like Philip Micallef and Gorg Mallia had criticised the proposed legislation, dubbing it “tyrannical”. But then both guests agreed on some positive measures proposed in the bill, namely the repeal of criminal libel, the repeal of prohibitory injunctions in the case of journalists, the introduction of mediation before proceeding to court and granting relatives of a deceased person 10 years in which to sue anyone they feel may have maligned the reputation of their loved one.

Bonnici and Puli did not agree on the increase in the maximum fine possible in civil libel cases, rising from €11,600 to €20,000.

“Many media houses are already struggling to survive commercially, so making them pay heftier fines would be placing a much bigger burden on them,” Puli said. “And if the current maximum penalty of €11,600 has never – or very rarely – been meted out, I don’t see the need to have a higher maximum fine.”

Bonnici insisted the increase was warranted and argued the value of a person’s reputation did not have a price tag.

The Press Act’s last increase in fines came under prime minister Eddie Fenech Adami in 1996, when the maximum fine was raised from Lm2,000 to Lm5,000.

Puli said the PN was not exaggerating the dangers posed by the proposed legislation but was genuinely concerned that journalistic freedom of expression was being threatened.

Bonnici argued that no one would believe that he, of all people, would attempt to censor journalism. “The Opposition persists in its one-track narrative accusing the government of being anti-democratic, but this is the government that introduced essential rights like a person’s right to have his lawyer present during interrogation, even over the objection of the police themselves,” he said.

“We are now going as far as including the element of honest opinion to complement the defence of ‘fair comment’ and we are also proposing protection for researchers and academics who will now be protected when publishing papers in journals.”

Peppi Azzopardi: “Stealing someone’s dignity is a criminal act”

Xarabank presenter Peppi Azzopardi said during a live phone-in that he believed ruining someone’s dignity should be considered a criminal act. “I am journalist, but I feel that many journalists expect different standards for themselves,” he said. “I am against prisons but, on the other hand, I cannot accept making a distinction for journalists, just as I do not agree with parliamentary privilege.”

Azzopardi also said prohibitory injunctions should be de-criminalised for every case, not only those involving journalists. He acknowledged that he had initially been shocked to learn about the required registration of online editors but had then come to realise it was not so bad as some were making it out to be.

Puli said he did not agree with Azzopardi and insisted journalists – the fourth estate – were privileged because of the role they served in maintaining scrutiny on public life, an argument that found Bonnici’s assent. “I agree on protecting the role of journalists,” he said. “The only person to try and muzzle journalism in our country was Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi, who tried to have a One News journalist arrested for doing her job.”

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