Monthly Archives: March 2017

Stqarrija – Front Kontra ċ-Ċensura – 04/03/2017

L-Abbozz dwar il-Midja u l-Malafama jaqbeż numru ta’ linji ħomor

Il-Front Kontra ċ-Ċensura qiegħed jerġa’ jiġi kostitwit wara li l-Gvern ħareġ b’abbozz li jaqbeż numru ta’ linji ħomor fejn tidħol il-libertà tal-espressjoni. Għalkemm l-Abbozz dwar il-Midja u l-Malafama jagħmel xi titjib fejn tidħol is-sitwazzjoni tal-lum, dan qiegħed jagħmel ukoll numru ta’ passi lura. Il-Gvern qiegħed jimponi tibdil li jmur kontra l-ispirtu tal-manifest elettorali tiegħu fejn tidħol it-tneħħija taċ-ċensura.

Waqt li l-Front jilqa’ t-tneħħija tal-libell oxxen u t-tneħħija tas-sekwestri fil-każijiet ta’ libell, jikkundanna bil-qawwa ż-żieda fid-danni għal-libell ċivili u l-fatt li dan l-abbozz falla għal kollox milli jimplementa t-tneħħija tal-libell kriminali. Il-Front mhuwiex kuntent lanqas dwar ir-reġistrazzjoni tas-servizzi tal-aħbarijiet, ir-restrizzjonijiet il-ġodda fuq il-protezzjoni tas-sorsi, u l-fatt li ma tneħħewx il-liġijiet li jipproteġu l-President minn kull kritika. Il-ħsibijiet dettaljati tal-Front dwar dawn il-kwistjonijiet jidhru aktar ‘l isfel f’din l-istqarrija.

Il-Front jixtieq iħabbar ukoll li qiegħed jilqa’ l-fatt li l-Gvern jidher li lest isewwi dan l-abbozz, iżda fl-istess ħin irid ifakkar lill-Gvern li l-Front mhux lest jagħmel kompromessi fuq punti ta’ prinċipju.

Il-Ħsibijiet tal-Front dwar l-Abbozz

1) Il-Front jilqa’ b’sodisfazzjon it-tneħħija tal-libell oxxen (artikolu 7 tal-Ligi tal-Istampa). Taħt din il-liġi, min jinstab ħati li kiteb ħwejjeġ li joffendu l-morali pubblika jew id-deċenza seta’ jiġi immultat jew jispiċċa saħansitra tliet xhur ħabs. Minħabba l-ambigwità tagħha, din il-liġi ġiet użata fil-passat bħala mezz ta’ repressjoni artistika u għaldaqstant it-tneħħija tagħha hija pass pożittiv. Dan jingħaqad ma’ passi siewja li diġà ttieħdu u li kien saħaq fuqhom il-Front, bħat-tneħħija taċ-ċensura fuq it-teatru, it-tneħħija tal-liġi kontra l-vilifikazzjoni tar-reliġjon u l-bidla tal-liġi kontra l-pornografija ġħal waħda kontra l-pornografija estrema. Wieħed jista’ jgħid li b’dan ġie żarmat ir-reġim taċ-ċensura artistika.

2) Il-Front jilqa’ ukoll b’sodisfazzjoni it-tneħħija tal-mandati ta’ sekwestru fejn huma involuti d-danni li jistgħu jintrebħu f’każ ta’ libell (artikolu 26, subartikolu 6 tal-abbozz). Fil-fehma tal-Front, din il-miżura kienet forma ta’ abbuż legali għaliex is-sekwestru seta’ jintuża bħala forma ta’ theddida fuq l-għajxien ta’ kull ġurnalist, u dan mingħajr ma tkun ġiet aċċertata l-ħtija tal-ġurnalist stess. F’din l-għamla s-sekwestru ma seta’ jkollu l-ebda effett ieħor ħlief li jnissel il-biża’ fil-ġurnalisti li jirrappurtaw ċertu aħbarijiet, bi ħsara kbira fuq ir-rwol li għandha l-istampa biex tiżgura l-kontabbilità ta’ min qiegħed f’pożizzjoni ta’ poter.

3) Il-Front jikkundanna l-fatt li d-danni fejn jidħol il-libell ċivili sejrin jitilgħu minn €11,646.87 għal €20,000 (artikolu 9 tal-abbozz). Il-Front iħoss li dawn id-danni huma eżaġerati u li l-ħarsien tar-reputazzjoni ta’ individwu li jisfa’ fil-mira tal-istampa irid jiġi dejjem bilanċjat mal-ġid pubbliku li joħroġ minn stampa ħielsa. L-ammont ta’ dawn id-danni jista’ mhux biss iwassal sabiex il-gazzetti jibqgħu lura milli jippubblikaw ċertu aħbarijiet, iżda sabiex issir ħsara finanzjarja kbira lill-istampa indipendenti b’tali mod li din ikollha tagħlaq il-bibien tagħha b’detriment għall-pubbliku.

Il-Front jinnota li meta żdiedu l-ammonti tad-danni ma sar l-ebda sforz sabiex dawn ikunu proporzjonali mal-mezzi tal-organu tal-istampa fil-kwistjoni. Għaldaqstant din il-liġi hija waħda klassista li sejra twassal sabiex il-libertà tal-espressjoni ssir il-privileġġ esklussiv ta’ dawk l-organi li huma ffinanzjati tajjeb u li jifilħu jaqilgħu dawn il-ġrieħi, għad-detriment tal-pluraliżmu u d-demokrazija. Il-Front iqis ukoll li ma ntwera bl-ebda mod li l-qliegh tal-istampa f’dawn l-aħħar snin żdied b’mod proporzjonali ma’ din iż-żieda fid-danni. Minghajr dan ma jiġi pruvat, l-argument li hemm bżonn ‘aġġornament’ fil-valur tad-danni ma jagħmel l-ebda sens, sakemm l-intenzjoni m’hix dik li l-liġi tiħrax aktar minn qabel.

Il-Front iqis ukoll li l-aħħar parti tal-artikolu 9 tal-abbozz — fejn jingħad li jistgħu jingħataw ukoll “danni taħt kwalunkwe liġi li tkun fis-seħħ fir-rigward ta’ telf reali inkluż telf ta’ qligħ” — hija waħda perikoluża. Fil-fehma tagħna l-għan ta’ dan il-provvediment mhux ċar. Il-fatt li ġie inkluż taħt subartikolu 9 jindika li l-għan tiegħu huwa differenti minn dak tal-libell kummerċjali, u huwa intiż sabiex jagħti danni li jmorru lil hinn minn dawk għad-diffamazzjoni nnifisha. Tajjeb li wieħed jgħid li t-“telf ta’ qligħ” huwa biss telf potenzjali u li fil-verità la jista’ jiġi kwantifikat u lanqas attribwit b’xi ċertezza għad-diffamazzjoni nnifisha – xi ħaġa li tista’ twassal għall-abbuż. Fuq kollox iżda, mhux ċar għalfejn dan kollu qiegħed jissemma f’artikolu 9 tal-abbozz, ladarba imbagħad tissemma li dawn id-danni jingħataw taħt liġijiet oħra.

4) Il-Front m’hu xejn sodisfatt bir-riforma fil-libell kriminali. Dan għaliex l-artikolu li jirregola d-diffamazzjoni kriminali (artikolu 252 tal-Kodiċi Kriminali) mhux sejjer jitneħħa. Minflok dan qiegħed jiġi emendat b’mod konfuż għall-aħħar (artikolu 25, subartikolu (d) tal-abbozz).

L-ewwel osservazzjoni tal-Front hija li dan ir-reat sejjer jibqa’ japplika fis-sustanza tiegħu, u min jinstab ħati jista’ xorta waħda jiġi immultat u jeħel sa tliet xhur ħabs.

It-tieni osservazzjoni hi li għalkemm l-emenda tneħħi ir-reat ta’ diffamazzjoni meta dan isir bil-“kitba, dinsinji jew xi mod ieħor”, din sejra tħallih meta dan isir bi “kliem, b’ġesti, b’insulti jew xi mod ieħor”. Jekk l-intenzjoni tal-leġiżlatur kienet li jneħħi dan ir-reat meta jsir bil-kitba u jżommu meta jsir bil-fomm, dan ma rnexxiex fl-intenzjoni tiegħu ghaliex b’ “xi mod ieħor” tinkludi ukoll diffamazjoni meta din issir permess tal-istampa.

It-tielet osservazzjoni hi li bit-tibdil li qiegħed jiġi propost, il-leġiżlatur qiegħed ukoll imur lil hinn mil-liġi kif inhi llum. Dan qiegħed isir billi tiġi inkluża il-kelma ‘insulti’ fil-modi li jridu jiġu ikkunsidrati meta l-Maġistrat jew l-Imħallef iqis jekk saritx id-diffamazzjoni kriminali. Tajjeb li wieħed jinnota li ‘insulti’ huma ‘kliem’ ukoll, u li din iż-żieda kienet tkun żejda li kieku i-leġiżlatur ma riedx jagħti importanza speċjali lil dan il-mod kif tista’ titwettaq diffamazzjoni kriminali. Il-Front jemmen li din iż-żieda kienet waħda żgwidata u sejra twassal sabiex ir-reat ta’ diffamazzjoni kriminali jibda japplika għall-forom ġodda ta’ espressjoni li ma kienux jaqgħu taħt ir-reat li għandna llum.

Il-Front jixtieq itemm dwar din il-kwistjoni billi jgħid li ma jara ebda sens fl-idea li l-libelli fl-istampa jiġu trattati ċivilment waqt li tintuża liġi kriminali meta d-diffamazzjoni ssir bil-fomm. Dan l-arranġament mhux konsistenti u huwa kkumplikat iżżejjed, u jista’ jiġi simplifikat billi jkun hemm liġi waħda ta’ diffamazzjoni ċivili li tiġbor iż-żewġ każijiet taħtha.

5) Il-Front ma jaqbilx ukoll mal-fatt li l-edituri ta’ siti elettroniċi għandhom jirreġistraw mal-Gvern (artikolu 29, subartikolu 2 tal-abbozz). Dan minħabba l-fatt li id-definizzjoni ta’ sit elettroniku hija ambigwa u wiesgħa wisq. Infatti din tinkludi ukoll “kwaluknwe servizz ieħor relatat mal-aħbarijiet jew ġrajjiet kurrenti”, u b’hekk tista’ twassal sabiex individwi b’sit elettroniku li jaqsmu l-opinjoni tagħhom fuq l-internet jispiċċaw jiġu mmultati sa €1,000 ghaliex dawn ma rreġistrawx ruħhom. Huwa diffiċli temmen li l-leġiżlatur kellu din l-intenzjoni, u wieħed għandu joqgħod attent li ma jispiċċax ipoġġi tfixkil finanzjarju għad-dritt tal-espressjoni ħielsa fuq l-Internet.

Il-Front ma jaqbilx ukoll mal-fatt li l-protezzjoni tas-sorsi għandha tapplika biss għal servizzi ta’ aħbarijiet li jirreġistraw ruħhom u għall-ġurnalisti li abitwalment jipprattikaw din il-professjoni fuq bażi full-time jew part-time (artikolu (21) subartikolu (2)). Għal dan inħossu li hemm tliet raġunijiet. L-ewwel raġuni hija li l-użu ta’ sorsi jista’ ikun importanti għall-kategoriji ta’ nies oħra barra dawk imsemmija – ngħidu aħna attivisti jew ġurnalisti-ċittadini. It-tieni, il-mod kif qiegħed jiġi mrażżan dan id-dritt mhux konsistenti mal-importanza u l-protezzjoni li qiegħda tingħata lilu minn artikolu (21) subartikolu (1) tal-abbozz. It-tielet raġuni hija li l-Qrati taw definizzjoni wiesgħa ħafna ta’ min jikwalifika bħala ġurnalist u fl-opinjoni tagħna hawnhekk qiegħed isir attentat żgwidat sabiex jiżdiedu r-restrizzjonijiet fuq dan id-dritt.

6) Il-Front jinnota li l-artikolu 72 tal-Kodiċi Kriminali, li jikkastiga lil min juri nuqqas ta’ qima lejn il-President qiegħed jiġi mibdul minn dan l-abbozz (artiklu 25, sub artiklu (b)). Il-Front ma jistax jifhem għala ma ttieħdetx din l-opportunità sabiex dan ir-reat jitneħħa għal kollox. Anki fil-forma aktar mansa li qiegħed jipproponi dan l-abbozz, dan ir-reat jibqa’ anakroniżmu li mhux kompatibbli mal-liberta’ tal-espressjoni. Ma jistax ikun li persuna għadha tista’ tiġi mmultata jew mibgħuta bejn xahar u tliet xhur ħabs sempliċement għaliex ma tapprovax għemil il-President. F’Repubblika fejn iċ-ċittadini huma kollha l-istess quddiem il-liġi. Il-President ma jista’ jistenna l-ebda protezzjoni mill-kritika, speċjalment la darba dan huwa ħieles li jieħu pożizzjonijiet politiċi u jmexxi ‘il quddiem kawżi li jsibu l-favur tiegħu.

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Press Release – Front Against Censorship – 04/03/2017

Media and Defamation Bill crosses red lines

The Front Against Censorship is being reconstituted after the publication of a bill which crosses the line on a number of issues connected with the right to freedom of expression. Although we can concede that the bill is, in some respects, an improvement on the current situation, it also entails a number of setbacks. Government is proposing changes which contradict the principles which informed its electoral manifesto, particularly those regarding its commitment to the removal of censorship laws.

The Front welcomes the removal of obscene libel and the the fact that garnishees will no longer be issued in civil libel cases. However, it takes 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. 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. The reasons for these concerns are detailed hereunder.

The Front would also like to announce that while it welcomes the fact that the Government seems to be open to the suggestion of amending the bill, it will refuse to compromise over issues of principle.

Detailed reaction to the Bill

1) The Front welcomes the removal of obscene libel (article 7 of the Press Act). Under this law, anyone found guilty of having written a text which offends public morals or decency can be fined or even be handed a prison sentence of up to three months. Due to its ambiguity, the law has been used in the past as a means of suppressing artistic expression and its removal is thus welcomed by the Front.

This measure had been proposed by the Front itself and is 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.

2) The Front welcomes the fact that it will no longer be possible for garnishees to be issued for cases of civil libel (article 26, sub article 6 of the Bill). The Front believes that the issue of garnishees in such cases amounted to an abuse of the law, putting the livelihood of journalists at risk and compromising the principle of innocence until one is proven guilty. Such measures instil a sense of fear, with journalists refraining from reporting certain stories. This would have obvious negative repercussions on the role played by the press in keeping people in positions of power accountable.

3) The Front contests the steep hike in damages for civil libel – from €11,646.87 to €20,000 (article 9 of the Bill). The Front considers these damages to be too high and argues 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.

The Front also notes 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 is thus classist, 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. 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 that it presently is.

The Front also considers the last part of article 9 of the Bill a dangerous provision whose aims are unclear. In this part of the article it is stated 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. It worth noting that any quantification of such a ‘loss of earnings’ can only ever be conjectural, as would be any attribution of this ‘loss of earnings’ to the defamation itself, as opposed to other causes. As such this is yet another potential source of abuse. Either way this provision seems to be amiss in article 9 of the Bill.

4) The Front is not satisfied with the reform of criminal libel. The article regulating criminal defamation (article 252 of the Criminal Code) will not be removed. Instead, it is being amended in a confusing manner (article 25, sub article (d) of the bill).

Firstly, those found guilty under article 252 are still facing a fine or imprisonment of up to three months. Secondly, 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’. 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.

In the proposed amendment, the legislator is 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. It is to be remarked here that ‘insults’ are already included in ‘words’. Hence one can only conclude that the legislator is attempting to put a special emphasis on insults as a way of committing defamation. 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.

Finally, the Front does not see the sense in treating libel cases civilly and then having a separate criminal defamation law applying to slander. This treatment is both inconsistent and overly complicated, and could be simplified by having one civil defamation law subsuming both cases.

5) The Front also takes exception to the requirement requiring editors of websites to register officially (article 29, sub article 2 of the Bill), due to the fact that the definition of ‘website’ is too ambiguous. In fact, it includes any news service relating to news and current affairs. This means that individuals operating websites can be fined up to €1,000 for having shared their opinions without having previously registered officially. It is hard to believe this was the intention of the legislator. One must take care not to limit the right to freedom of expression on the internet through the imposition of financial hurdles.

The Front also wishes to take a stand 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 (article 21 sub article 2). Our opposition to this matter is threefold. Firstly, the use of sources might be important for other categories of people other than those covered by the law – for instance, activists or citizen journalists. Secondly, the manner in which this right is being curtailed is not consistent with the importance and protection accorded to it by article 21 sub article 1 of the Bill. Thirdly, the Courts have defined the term ‘journalist’ as applying to a very wide category of people, and it is our belief that this provision will impinge on and impose restrict this definition.

6) The Front notes that article 72 of the Criminal Code, relating to offences committed when raising various forms disaffection towards the President is being updated by the Bill (article 25, sub article (b)). The Front does not understand why the opportunity was not taken to repeal this article altogether. Even in its updated form, this anachronism is not consistent with freedom of expression. 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. 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.

Don’t derail press law debate with spin

Seeing placards with middle fingers against the government during protest marches gives me a pleasant feeling. Those of us who have in the recent years been lobbying for anti-censorship reforms are pleased with such developments. We remember very well how, in demonstrations held during previous Nationalist administrations, a “MEPA bla bajd!” or “Lawrence Gonzi ħanżir” placard would be taken away by the police.

It is also to our satisfaction that in its new press reform bill, the government is basically doing away with criminal and obscene libel. The Times of Malta and MaltaToday have consistently demanded reform of current press libel laws and they should be credited for pushing this matter in the government’s agenda. Labour can be credited by keeping its word in addressing legal reforms to improve censorship laws in the art and literature fields and now it’s making a new and much-awaited step to reform stifling press laws.

Of course we are not happy that civil libel damages will be increased and neither do we agree with the register for the online news portals. This is a simple regulatory mechanism which already exists in print and broadcasting, but the government should have done away with such useless regulatory instruments and not keep extending them.

The government didn’t invest much time consulting with experts and lobbyists on this bill before it was published, and in fact the bill has some technical mistakes which could easily have been avoided. The bill also makes the mistake of granting the right of protection of sources exclusively to journalists – this is unconstitutional and a mistake of principle because the law should not have the power to discriminate between journalists and citizens. The question whether something is journalistic or not does not need to be mixed with the legal adjudication process upon what is truthful or not.

Despite some of the positive aspects of the bill, we expected something better, so it’s also good that the government is now making a step backward and discussing with the right stakeholders such as the Institute of Journalists to change this bill even further. I am optimistic that the government will listen to the right advice and amend its mistakes, and we have to keep engaging government and arguing our case with scientific and legitimate arguments.

If the lobby for freedom of speech grows more cohesively and gets more organsied, we could even lobby for the removal and reform of even more laws which are used by politicians to suppress criticism, such as article 252 of the criminal code and article 48 of the electronic communications act.

Definitely this press bill will not be the end of our cause. It is crucial that we never let go of the momentum to keep changing the law since we have come far to convince politicians to legislate against laws which are intended first and foremost to protect them.

Admittedly, we have now been sidetracked with the recent entry of new factors into the equation, mainly those of Daphne Caruana Galizia and the Nationalist Party. The Nationalist Party has suddenly gone into the business of fighting for freedom of speech after one of its activists and spin-doctors, Daphne Caruana Galizia has gone on trial and was mandated with a garnishee order for her story of Minister Chris Cardona who, she claims, went to a German brothel and had a threesome with a prostitute and his aide.

Caruana Galizia’s brothel story pushes the boundaries of what can be considered as truthful by law. This is a conundrum for our debate with the government because the possibility of publishing untruthful stories makes a legitimate case to those who argue that civil libel laws are important to safeguard the reputation of individuals.

As of now there is nothing substantiating Caruana Galizia’s brothel story except for the word of Caruana Galizia herself who has the information from a punter she says she knows. Surely, the law cannot easily consider a statement as truthful based solely on the word of one person against the word of another, so ideally a story should be considered as legally truthful only if it is backed by solid and recorded evidence and/or a significant number of unrelated witnesses who clearly have no political agenda or financial interest in the matter.

I won’t apologise for working for a government which is weakening the legal framework of censorship, which had been left standing for all these years, and I will not be apologetic for being irreverent to the hypocritical and opportunistic dinosaurs twice my age who are using the debate of the press reforms for their own partisan fantasies.

Mary Anne-Lauri, who went to protest with the Nationalist Party for freedom of speech, had been part of the University administration whose Rector wanted to see me in prison for publishing an obscene story in a punk-styled student paper. So is Gorg Mallia, head of the University of Malta’s department of media many years too late with an infantile cartoon of a man hanging by the noose of the new media bill. One wonders what Mallia has been doing all these years: in his unique academic position and having been chairman of the National Book Council when the ‘Li Tkisser Sewwi’ obscenity case broke out: he refrained from discussing the case itself, let alone coming out in support of the author and publisher.

It is clear for me that the likes of Lauri, Mallia and Caruana Galizia are not genuinely interested in reforming press laws and weakening libel laws. Instead, an ill thought-out proposal for online editorial registration has played into the hands of the Nationalist spin doctors, who misrepresent the law as one that serves to suppress dissent.

For the first time in years, this government is actually engaged in an open debate with society to weaken libel laws and activists should keep up the pressure on the government, with scientific and academic arguments, to keep legislating in a progressive manner. We should be adamant when the government is mistaken and should not give ground. Personally, I will not be apologetic to the narcissist foot-soldiers who are spinning this debate into a narrative that suits only their partisan interests.

http://www.maltatoday.com.mt/comment/blogs/74866/dont_derail_press_law_debate_with_spin#.WLZzU9_6wnQ