When the government released its sloppy and badly-drafted Media and Defamation Bill back in February the lobby for freedom of speech and expression felt betrayed. The media bill proposed to double civil libel fines and failed to remove criminal libel from the list of indictable offences.
The publication of stories based on unsubstantiated claims, appearing both online and in the press at around the same time, was deemed as grounds enough by a faction of government supporters to endorse a bill which aimed to stifle free speech even further than before.
We were worried and rightly so.
The Front against Censorship was quick to react. We launched a campaign of strong opposition to the bill. We analysed the bill thoroughly and presented clear-cut counter-proposals. The government responded by inviting us for talks. The talks were very intensive and it took some time until the government consented to our proposed changes to the bill, a demanding exercise in which I was helped by my colleagues Ingram Bondin and Andrew Sciberras.
It is only right that the government should be praised for accepting most of our proposals, which included the universalisation of the right of protection of sources (instead of having it restricted solely to those in the media register), the complete abolition of criminal libel, the removal of colonial vilification laws related to the President and the Flag of the Republic, the consolidation of a single-publication rule, the removal of the obligation for members of the media to register with the proposed media register and the capping of civil libel damages to their current level. It is worth mentioning that the government was initially adamant that it would double civil libel damages, but now these will not be increased and they will remain at the current level.
This bill is partly a copy from the UK defamation Act which is a good model to follow as long as you cap the damages, and tweak and modify several other points. Admittedly, the government didn’t accept all our proposals, some of which were very technical, but we can safely say that this bill is an important progressive step forward for the consolidation of the right of freedom of speech in our country.
This bill will also help induce a safer environment for journalists since it gives the explicit message that journalists and writers have the right to criticise and investigate incisively with greater freedom than before. Thanks to the single-publication rule, one can’t open a libel case on each and every re-publication of a story – there can only be one case for every story, irrespective how many times this story has been published.
Libel laws have always been used by the strong and powerful to clamp down on criticism.
Big companies and politicians have repeatedly used libel laws in order to stop journalists trying to investigate cases of corporate misconduct.
This new legislation will make it even more difficult for the strong and powerful to silence criticism or journalistic investigation.
Now it is up to the media editors to step in and put forward their position and proposals when the bill goes to the second reading and more amendments may be made.
The Labour government has as of now been consistent in dismantling our censorship laws and it is continuing to do so with the help of stakeholders. We should insist that it does not lose track of this consistent progress.