Press law reform is here: let’s strengthen this Bill

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.

19 November 2017, 9:16am

http://www.maltatoday.com.mt/comment/blogs/82306/press_law_reform_is_here_lets_strengthen_this_bill#.Whp7k981snQ

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Front’s Media Bill Amendments Accepted by Government

Press Release – Front Against Censorship – 15/11/2017

Front’s Media Bill Amendments Accepted by Government

The Front Against Censorship wishes to express its satisfaction at the fact that the Government has accepted the majority of its amendments to the Media and Defamation Bill.

When the Government had proposed the Bill last February, the Front had opposed it on a number of grounds. From March onwards the Front has been engaged in intensive discussion with the Government with the aim of reaching an agreement over the contents of the Bill. These extensive efforts have now borne fruit and the Government has now accepted the Front’s proposals.

The measures which had been proposed by the Front and which have been accepted by the Government are the following.

  1. Repeal of Criminal Libel and Criminal Defamation. Libel and Slander will now be tried exclusively in a Civil Court.

  2. Damages awarded for Libel to remain at 11,646.87 instead of being doubled to €20,000.

  3. Repeal of Obscene Libel – thus completing reform of artistic censorship laws.

  4. Single Publication Rule – only one libel suit can be filed per story.

  5. Universal Protection of Sources – to be extended to all authors.

  6. Garnishees not to be granted in cases of Libel and Slander.

  7. Law on Improper Use of Electronic Communications Networks not to apply to Libel and Slander.

  8. Registration of websites will not be obligatory.

  9. Criticism of the President no longer a criminal offence.

  10. Reform of draconian colonial era Sedition laws.

The Front believes that these reforms represent a huge step forward in the dismantling of Malta’s censorship laws. The Front agrees wholeheartedly with more lenient libel laws since it believes that libel is too often a weapon used by powerful political and business interests to intimidate journalists exposing their wrongdoing. Despite this important reform of repressive laws the Front promises to keep vigilant against future threats to freedom of expression.

Stqarrija Stampa – Front Kontra ċ-Ċensura – 15/11/2017

Il-Front Kontra ċ-Ċensura jilqa’ b’sodisfazzjon il-fatt li l-Gvern aċċetta l-maġġoranza tal-proposti tiegħu dwar l-Abbozz ta’ Ligi dwar il-Midja u l-Malfama.

Meta fi Frar li għadda l-Gvern ħareġ Abbozz ta’ Liġi sabiex jemenda il-Liġi tal-Istampa, il-Front Kontra ċ-Ċensura kien irreaġixxa billi oppona dan l-abbozz fuq diversi punti. Minn Marzu li għadda l-Gvern beda diskussjonijiet intensivi mal-Front Kotnra ċ-Ċensura bil-għan li jinltaħaq ftehim fuq l-abbozz. Illum nistgħu ngħidu b’sodisfazzjon li dawn id-diskussjonijiet u x-xogħol estensiv li għamel il-Front f’dan ir-rigward sarraf fil-qbil tal-Gvern mal-maġġoranza tal-proposti tal-Front.

Il-proposti tal-Front li ġew aċċettati u li sejrin jidhru fl-abbozz il-ġdid huma dawn li ġejjin:

  1. It-tneħħija tal-Libell Kriminali u l-Inġurja Kriminali. Każijiet ta’ Libell u Inġurja sejrin jibdew jinstemgħu biss f’Qorti Ċivili.

  2. Id-danni li jistgħu jintrebħu waqt Libell Ċivili sejrin jibqgħu €11,646.87 minflok jirduppjaw għal €20,000.

  3. It-tneħħija tal-Libell Oxxen, li sejjer iġib fi tmiemu ir-reġim ta’ ċensura artistika.

  4. Regola ta’ Pubblikazzjoni Waħdanija – storja waħda issa sejra toħloq kawża ta’ libell waħda biss.

  5. Protezzjoni tas-Sors Universali – l-awturi kollha issa sejrin igawdu mill-protezzjoni tas-sorsi.

  6. Mhux sejrin jingħataw mandati ta’ sekwestru fejn jidħlu kawżi ta’ Libell u Inġurja.

  7. Il-Liġi dwar l-Użu Mhux Xieraq ta’ Apparat Elettroniku mhux sejra tapplika aktar fejn jidħlu l-kawżi ta’ Libell u Inġurja.

  8. Ir-Reġistrazzjoni tas-siti mhux sejra tkun obbligatorja.

  9. Il-kritika lejn il-President mhux sejra tibqa’ offiża kriminali.

  10. Aġġornament tal-Liġijiet Kolonjali tas-Sedizzjoni.

Dawn ir-riformi huma pass kbir ‘il quddiem, għaliex ikomplu jżarmaw u jtaffu l-liġijiet ta’ ċensura f’pajjiżna, b’mod speċjali fejn jidħlu il-liġijiet tal-libell. Il-Front Kontra ċ-Ċensura jaqbel li l-liġijiet tal-libell għandhom ikunu anqas ħorox għaliex ħafna drabi dawn huma arma b’saħħitha li tintuża minn politiċi u negozjanti kbar kontra dawk il-ġurnalisti li jikxfu l-imġieba ħażina tagħhom. Minkejja din ir-riforma importanti fejn jidħlu dawn il-liġijiet ripressivi, il-Front iwiegħed li sejjer jibqa’ attent għal kull theddid ieħor lejn il-liberta’ tal-espressjoni li tista’ titfaċċa fil-ġejjieni.

No bombs can condition democracy

This article appeared last Sunday in MaltaToday. 

I am as shocked and angry as many others on the execution of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Most of us never imagined that Caruana Galizia, or any other journalist or writer, would ever have been executed. It is only in the late 1970s and 1980s that Malta began experiencing some form of deadly political and civil violence after Independence, and yet this was nothing comparable to the scale and troubles of other independent and post-colonial countries.

Since the tense period of the 1980s, it never passed anyone’s mind that someone would execute a murder for political reasons, let alone imagine a journalist or a writer being executed in such a brutal manner. The assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia is abominable and treacherous, cowardly in nature yet so rotten that it has scarred our peaceful way of life. The peaceful calm in this country has been broken as someone, somewhere has crossed a line that should not have been crossed.

No one actually showed any outrage at the car bombings which took place during the recent years. It’s ok, we thought, as we assumed that as long as the criminal gangs blow up each other, we, as law-abiding civilians, have nothing to fear. Now, this has changed. The fact that this line has been crossed by the assassination of a journalist and writer makes it even more outrageous and terrifying. Criminal groups are directly threatening not only our peace, but even our democracy and way of life.

In this moment of outrage and mourning to a slain journalist and writer, our society needs a lot of reflection as well especially since we never expected such an outcome in the first place.

The State should be able to create a safe environment for journalists and writers free from any harassment and intimidation, so it should go without saying that the government should quickly send the right response by re-drafting its proposed and sloppy press reform and abolish criminal libel, lower civil libel damages, and increase fines for vexatious libel.

Undoubtedly there is a large and overwhelming feeling in society that the police commissioner is not doing his job, especially since there were no police investigations in the Panama papers matter.

Police commissioners in Malta have since colonial times always protected the strong and powerful, and this is why in our recent history, no politician from either side of the political spectrum has ever gone to prison over corruption, despite the fact that cases of corruption by governments from both sides of the spectrum are numerous and well-known. It is about time that politicians are held accountable by the law. A new police commissioner chosen by a commission of judges could increase trust in our institutions.

If there are reasons for the Prime Minister and the Labour government to resign, this is not one of them. If Labour were to resign from government right now after having won the elections with a clear mandate, it would be sending the message that violence can actually dictate our democratic process.

Clearly we have to stick together as a country in this moment of crisis as we cannot allow bombs and violence to affect our way of life, to divide us and cripple our democracy.

http://www.maltatoday.com.mt/comment/blogs/81537/no_bombs_can_condition_democracy_#.We7h9d8xInR

Statement on the Murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia

It is with deep sorrow that we mourn the loss of Daphne Caruana Galizia, killed in a planned attack with a car-bomb in her hometown earlier today. No journalist and writer should suffer this fate and the state should ensure that all writers and journalists are able to work in a safe environment, free from harassment and intimidation. It is of the utmost importance, for the sake of our democracy and our way of life, that the perpetrators of this horrible killing be brought to justice, not only to serve the required punishment, but also to bring to light the real motivation of this horrible attack. Undoubtedly, this is a very difficult day for the relatives and family of Daphne Caruana Galizia, but it is also a difficult day for our democracy. In such difficult moments, it is with adamant resolution that one may face the forces of terror so as not to allow these forces to instill fear amongst our community of writers and journalists

Worst of times for public broadcasting

Recently, a film producer who was awarded a PBS and Arts Council grant of €100,000 to produce a dramatic film about Carmelo Borg Pisani, went on record saying that we need to tell the story of Carmelo Borg Pisani with an “open mind”. The film producer will be using public funds to create a dramatic film on Borg Pisani based on a poorly-researched book by Laurence Mizzi, which portrays Borg Pisani as an admirable person with views too romantic to be dangerous.

In the 1940s, as Jews, Russians and Europeans alike were forced into a war not of their own making by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, the victims of war did not have the privilege to think about Nazis and Fascists with an open mind. With Europe under the yoke of Nazi Germany and its fascist allies, Jews were faced with genocide on an industrial scale and Western Russians had to fight against the threat of military annihilation. Historical revisionism cannot be more grating and objectionable as when it attempts to relieve the guilt from perpetrators of some of the most horrible crimes in history.

It is beyond shameful and outrageous that the Arts Council and PBS should award such a coveted grant to a project of historical revisionism. Borg Pisani was a fascist and a traitor whose decision to spy on Malta for the Italians during the height of the Second World War was taken on by him in full conviction of his perverse and fascist beliefs. The facts are well known and presenting them otherwise for the sake of being “open minded” is outright dishonesty. In PBS’s statement, made by the chairman of the adjudication board which awarded the grant, Tony Cassar Darien, not even once was it mentioned that Borg Pisani was a fascist.

These are indeed the worst of times for public broadcasting in Malta. From the Kim Kardashian Reality-TV clone show of Benjamin Camilleri (apparently, Ben Camille as he describes himself), to prime time Xarabank waging outright war on the education system, and publicly-funded films revising the history of noted fascists and convicted traitors, PBS has reached a level of decadence unprecedented even by our abysmal standards. Yet, the Minister of Culture, Owen Bonnici, seems unperturbed by all this. He seems to share those same populist views that Peppi Azzopardi of Xarabank fame publicly espouses: since we have freedom of speech anything may go on the public broadcaster.

The point of having a public broadcaster is to provide citizens with a service of news, information, education and culture. A public broadcaster should not be used with the sole aim of entertaining the masses, and such kind of thinking is so perverse that it may theoretically justify the broadcasting of hardcore pornography. The populist views upheld by Peppi Azzopardi and his likes are actually in tune with the idea of public broadcasting under dictatorships. It is under dictatorships that public broadcasting is used to broadcast safe and brainless entertainment, shallow programming with little or no relevant information at all, puerile and insular political debates, and dramatic art with a revisionist agenda. Here in Malta we have a public broadcaster which would make a tin-pot South East Asian dictator proud.

The malaise afflicting the public broadcaster is no different from the blight that has befallen the Arts Council and the Valletta 18 Foundation. The motivation underpinning their allocation of funds does not seem to emerge from an informed vision. Decisions are not being made on the basis of sound educational and cultural principles, but simply on the need to support the vanity projects of friends and allies of politicians and officials in power. And this is why incompetent people are being appointed to high positions within important State institutions by the Ministry of Culture or by the appointees of the minister.

Take for example the adjudication board which granted the money to produce the Carmelo Borg Pisani film. It was composed of Audrey Harrison, an ex-MEPA employee who was then employed at the Film Commission by the Labour government and who appears on IMDB as an actress in one feature film; Anthony Attard, who is the executive director of the Arts Council and has background in theatre; and a priest called Joseph Henry Abela, who apparently has published a book on how people should live their lives. The chairman of the adjudication board, Tony Cassar Darien, is a playwright who writes slapstick drama, the kind you would see and read without needing the help of any grey matter to digest it. Basically, no one on the adjudication board knows jack about cinema and history and yet these people had the authority to grant the €100,000 fund. Insane.

All this is happening as we are heading toward the year when Valletta will be honoured with the title of Capital City of Culture. With a public broadcaster in shambles and cultural institutions under the management of incompetent people, V18 will come and go and will leave no tangible heritage.

The government should realise that nobody cares about the vanity projects of a couple of airheads. Culture can only be strengthened in the long term if we provide capital expenditure to invest in the cultural infrastructure, including the public broadcaster. Recurrent expenditure will come and go, but speaking about these concepts to many officials in PBS and other cultural entities is like speaking Cantonese to a Maltese who can hardly speak and write in Maltese, let alone Cantonese.

The Minister of Culture should sit back, take a deep breath and begin his reality check. This state of shambles cannot go on forever and if everybody in the culture industry, except for the minister’s cronies, are saying the same thing, then something is surely amiss. After all, the Labour Party has been elected into office to do better than this.

http://www.maltatoday.com.mt/comment/blogs/79523/worst_of_times_for_public_broadcasting#.WYlVV59NwnR

The readership rate conundrum

The recently released Arts Council and the National Statistics Office Cultural Participation Survey shows a 44% figure for persons who have read at least one whole book during the last 12 months. The survey on cultural participation is based on a sample of around 1,000 positive replies approximately divided per capita, according to Malta’s regions. The survey is on whether people have read a book, went to the cinema or a film-screening, listen to the radio, visited an art gallery, watched a play or engaged in these same cultural activities and others, including parish feasts.

This survey is a commendable yet rare exercise. Scientific surveys on culture are always welcome and Etienne Caruana at NSO, who for years has coordinated cultural statistics, should be commended for his work. Admittedly, public functionaries in education and culture have to work with a dearth of statistical data and scientific studies and the work of professionals like Caruana should be intensified and extended both at a central level, meaning at NSO, and in ministries and public entities. Since the Cultural Participation Survey is a rare exercise, it is even more important to commission other surveys on culture to obtain the best scientific result possible. One can easily cast doubts on aspects of the results of a survey if it stands alone, without being corroborated with other surveys on the same subject.

I would not be so fast as to jump to pessimistic conclusions on the basis of the 44% figure. As a matter of fact, I have some doubts about its accuracy, although I might be proved wrong if more surveys are commissioned and they all corroborate the same figure. Still, the Eurobarometer survey of 2013 had marked a 55% readership rate of books, recording an increase of 10% from the 2007 figure. The increasing readership rate was then corroborated with an increasing trend in book consumption and imports. Thus, overall we had very good reasons why to be optimistic of readership rates and book consumption.

The new 44% figure does not decrease my optimism. One has to admit that the same Cultural Participation Survey gives reasons to be optimistic. The survey indicates that it is the young who form the greatest chunk of the reading population. If the young generation is more likely to read books than their progenitors, then an upward trend in readership rates could be in the offing. This argument can be challenged by the fact that once young people have children, they might abandon many of their activities.

We also still have to wait to see the full benefits of the massive literacy and reading campaigns which have been initiated at a primary school level by the previous Labour administration. The National Book Council has played a small and yet crucial role in this strategy by giving out free book tokens to school children who attend the Book Festival in November and ensuring that the Festival inspires a positive outlook to reading and books in children and young teenagers.

School and class libraries are also being filled to the brim with books. The raison d’etre behind this drive is simple: catch them when they are young. Promoting the importance of reading and books to the general public is still a government priority and this is how the National Book Council comes into the formula. This is why under my chairmanship, the Book Council has spent considerable sums of its budgets in both print and online media, TV programmes, and even adverts and marketing drives on social media.

The survey also gives us the possibility to ask more questions and this is another reason why more detailed surveys are needed. Assuming both the Eurobarometer and the Cultural Participation are accurate, is there a chunk of readers who may read books intermittently according to what books are published? Fifty Shades of Grey might be a case a point.

If one were to assume this survey is accurate, then surely this should serve as a wake-up call for the government to increase exponentially the budget for the National Book Council. Under the previous Nationalist administrations, the book industry was all but ignored on a policy level, with the result that most of the cultural funding went to theatre, music and other cultural sectors, leaving the book sector completely out. Catching up with lost time and opportunity is difficult when the priorities had been set before one comes to office. Moving funds from one sector to another is also a bone of contention and a political issue, so any funding we receive is over and above the funding which has already been previously prioritised by government policy.

Books are not just a cultural segment offering enjoyment and an experience. Books are a pre-requisite for the educational and intellectual development of a society. A low readership rate should be a wake-up call for a government to pool its resources and step up its efforts in education, literacy and book promotion.

http://www.maltatoday.com.mt/comment/blogs/78501/maltas_low_readership_is_a_wakeup_call_for_the_government#.WVO4xh9NwnR

National Book Council’s Summer Book Festival

The National Book Council announces it has prepared a treat for all book lovers this Summer: the Summer Book Festival – Gozo, a two-day event packed with cultural activities as well as a book fair. It will take place in Gozo on 14 and 15 July at Sir M. A. Refalo Sixth Form in Victoria. The activities in the cultural programme of the festival will be based on the themes of youth literature and poetry.

Friday 14 July is dedicated to literature for youth. Activities for this day include a panel discussion on the topic of Youth and Literature, which will touch upon various themes, among which youth literacy, and the problems of addressing youth issues without being patronising. There will also be events that focus on particular authors who have distinguished themselves in literature aimed at or concerned with youth and youth issues. Among the guests, both for the panel discussion and the author events, there will be Leanne Ellul, Antoinette Borg, Matthew Schembri, Roberta Bajada and other winners of the Literary Contest – Novels for Youth, which is co-organized by the National Book Council and Aġenzija Żgħażagħ. Summer school students from Malta and Gozo will be invited to attend the Festival with their teachers and parents, as part of their summer school programme.

Poetry will be the focus of the activities on Saturday 15 July. The main event, in honour of the late Gozitan poet Gorg Pisani, will be set up by the National Book Council and will feature readings of excerpts of the poet’s work. A number of well-known local poets will also make an appearance during the various activities in the cultural programme for Saturday. Among these Prof. Michael Zammit and Maria Grech Ganado.

The publishers/associations participating for the event are: Merlin, Glen Calleja and EDE books, Faraxa, MCA (Malta Classics Association), Horizons, SKS, Midsea.

The National Book Council invites all members of the public to remember the dates and find the time to visit the festival during the day or later in the evening. Do not miss out on this opportunity to browse through great literature while getting to meet some of the most exciting authors and poets active today on our islands.

http://ktieb.org.mt/summer-book-festival-gozo/