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.

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