Eye on Media Reforms, Journalists' Safety, Malta to Introduce Sweeping Constitutional Changes

While the Maltese government has proposed a spate of reforms dealing with cases against journalists, protection of their sources and the media's role in the constitution, observers have argued that the proposals may be reforms in name only.

Listen to this article:

New Delhi: The Maltese government on Wednesday, September 28, has pledged to bring in a spate of media reforms relating to the role of the media in the country’s constitution, crimes against journalists, and libel and other cases filed against journalists.

The pledge, made by Maltese justice minister Jonathan Attard, came after a public inquiry into the 2017 murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia had held the state responsible, claiming that it had created a culture of complicity and pulling up the government for its treatment of the media.

Following the inquiry in 2021, a committee of journalists and media experts, led by a retired judge, was appointed to advise the government on how media laws in the country should be changed. Attard, making the government’s decision public, noted that most but not all of the committee’s recommendations have been incorporated. 

The murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia

In October, 2017, Caruana Galizia was killed by a car bomb near her residence. Known for her investigative journalism, the journalist had often targeted corruption both in the Maltese government and by those in the higher strata of society, breaking the story of Maltese involvement in corruption through the Panama Papers leak in 2016.

Following her death, demands from her family and international pressure from European rights watchdog, the Council of Europe, prompted the government to order a public inquiry into her killing, according to a report in the Guardian.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat appointed retired judge Michael Mallia to preside over the inquiry in September, 2019 and in July, 2021, the inquiry report was published which held the state responsible for failing to prevent the murder of the popular journalist. 

The committee of journalists and experts was constituted in response to the observations of the public inquiry, led by retired Justice Mallia himself. The committee made a number of proposals to the government.

The committee’s proposals

The Times of Malta, in its report, detailed the numerous proposals made by the committee: 

1. Constitutional changes: Freedom of the press is to be enshrined in Malta’s constitution; media and its role as a ‘public watchdog’ is to be acknowledged as the fourth pillar of democracy, along with the other three pillars – the executive, judiciary and legislature; protection of journalists’ sources is to be enshrined in the constitution; the right to privacy is to be amended in line with EU norms; and freedom of expression is to be amended in line with Article 11 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

2. Changes to court procedures: The report proposed that crimes against journalists because of their work will be considered aggravated and carry with them higher sentences; journalists and editors charged with libel will not have to pay court registry fees unless they lose the case; the kin of journalists and editors being sued for libel will no longer be prosecuted if the journalist dies (as happened with Caruana Galizia’s family); and magistrates will be empowered to junk libel cases if the journalist dies.

3. Provisions against SLAPP: For Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) cases, courts will be empowered to dismiss cases if they find them to be ‘manifestly unfounded’; damages in SLAPP cases ordered by foreign courts may be capped at local equivalents by Maltese courts; and local courts will be allowed to disregard foreign judgments in SLAPP cases.

Further, the proposal calls for a creation of a ‘media safety committee’ under the aegis of Malta’s Home Affairs Ministry.

Justice minister Attard submitted a document to journalists on Wednesday, noting that 83% of the committee’s proposals have been accepted, although not all in their entirety. Further, he did not detail which proposals have not been accepted. He also did not rule out the possibility of further changes being made in the future.

The reforms will be tabled in Parliament hereafter and will need to be voted into law in order to take effect.

Over a hundred Maltese media professionals last week signed a letter urging the prime minister to make the reforms public before tabling them in Parliament; a demand echoed by Caruana Galazia’s family, according to the Times of Malta report.

Attard, however, said while introducing the reforms on Wednesday that the government had already consulted various parties before drafting the reforms and that the government’s initial recommendations had been submitted to Parliament for public scrutiny.

Responses to the reforms

Although Attard described the reforms as “historic” and expressed that the government wanted to be at the “forefront” of the issue, Maltese media professionals and politicians have aired their compunctions with the government’s proposed reforms.

Former Nationalist Party MP Therese Comodini Cachia wrote on Twitter, “Nothing will change in practice for journalists nor for press freedom,” describing the reforms as “A few lovely words”.

With regards to the anti-SLAPP provisions, Cachia criticised the government for opting for a “weak strain” of protections instead of the EU Anti-SLAPP Directive Protection. While the EU inches closer to banning these targeted cases meant solely to harass journalists altogether, commentators point out that the Maltese government’s proposed move will keep SLAPP around in the country.