The following is a statement issued by the Media Reform Initiative, a group I’m in which is made up of journalists Monique Agius, human rights lawyer and academic Therese Comodini Cachia, and journalists and academics Joe Borg and Natalino Fenech .
The Media Reform Initiative affirms that it is very disappointing that the proposals in the final report of the government appointed Committee of Experts on Media are incapable of bringing about that enabling environment which the government is obliged to put in place. This is more disappointing as the report was published six years after the silencing of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s journalism, which was also a brutal warning to journalists and other media actors involved in public interest journalism.
The proposals in the Committee’s report leave journalists facing several challenges that threaten their work and their safety. It does not adequately protect journalists from the threat of capricious legislation called SLAPP although the committee had solid advice from media freedom experts how this could be done. Instead of proposing how PBS Ltd should serve the public and not the government, the committee only said that a new committee should be set up to study this issue. Neither do the proposals of the committee defend strongly enough people’s right to freedom of expression.
Although established in part fulfilment of one of the recommendations of the Public Inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Committee disregarded the guidance provided in the Public Inquiry report. Rather than propose a comprehensive review, the Committee’s final report presents weak recommendations which are limited to those areas which the government indicated it is willing to consider, and on other aspects it simply expressed vague ambitions or proposed that the matter should be studied or considered further.
The 16-page report, with its recommendations reflected as amendments to the Bills the government had tabled in parliament in 2022, represents a lost opportunity to provide the impetus needed to promote laws which are effective in practice and capable of protecting everyone’s right to engage in public participation and strengthen press freedom including by providing for the protection and security of those exercising their freedom of expression.
In particular Media Reform Initiative notes that:
- In relation to access to information held by public authorities, the Committee failed to make any recommendations vis-a-vis the Freedom of Information Act except reiterated calls previously made by others for the government to publish the reports reviewing that Act which it already has in hand. The Committee’s recommendation for the constitutionally recognised right to access to information to be limited by conditions established in law is problematic as it risks neutralizing the right to information itself. This leaves journalists to continue to face serious challenges in accessing information held by public entities. Several examples abound in this respect; suffice to refer to the several legal and judicial proceedings which journalists face to access information, and to the refusal by the tourism minister to publish the reports into film sector spending despite political promises.
- Despite seeking advice from international press freedom organisations, and despite receiving recommendations from Article 19 Europe, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), and Reporters without Borders (RSF), the Committee disregarded without explanation some of the most important recommendations given to it by these press freedom organisations.
- For example, the Committee disregarded proposals for recommending that legislation includes an indicative list of objective criteria for the identification of SLAPPs, the introduction of a short deadline for the initiation of cases, the undertaking of a coherent review of the Media and Defamation Act, and the prohibition of precautionary warrants against defendants where the claim relates to one’s engagement in public participation. Journalists and newsrooms face legal challenges in Malta and abroad as retaliation for their publications, and continue to receive abusive threats with the aim of killing journalistic investigations. Though the Committee’s final report is a step better than the anti-SLAPP recommendations it originally made in its first report, the final recommendations still fall short of being capable of providing journalists with protection from abusive proceedings which are a threat to democracy.
- The Committee appears to have taken on board the recommendations exclusively made to it by the government and by the Police on the setup and process for the protection and safety of journalists, failing to address the mistrust in that system and the severe limitations embedded in that proposed system which leaves journalists and those engaging in public participation exposed to risks and lack of effective protection. The recommendations made in this regard are of great concern and fail to reach the level of protection recommended by the Public Inquiry. Moreover, no other action aimed at curbing other threats which put journalists at risk, such as the use of dismissive or disparaging public rhetoric, was recommended.
- In making a plea for public financing of the media, the Committee proposes amongst other measures the introduction of direct grants, but fails to recommend objective criteria on how to protect media independence and pluralism in this regard, and how to safeguard the media from state capture.
- While referring to the Public Inquiry’s recommendation for a reform of the public service media, the Committee merely recommends that another ad hoc committee is appointed to study and propose a reform. Several reports, including the European Commission’s 2023 Rule of Law Report, criticise Malta’s failure to take steps “to enhance the independent governance and editorial independence of public service media.”
- The Committee’s report gives notice that the Istitut tal-Ġurnalisti (Institute of Journalists) is considering establishing a Media Council but provides no further information. This step would have direct consequences on journalism but the report fails to provide information on its scope, set up, remit, and function. While it would be good for the Institute to study why and in which circumstances media councils were established abroad, and to study their failures or levels of efficiency, even through exchanges with foreign media councils, this step cannot be taken without ensuring strong independence, impartiality and integrity of such a set up after transparent and wide consultation first with those journalists, editors and other media actors working in Malta.
These are a few indications of the missed opportunity that could have served as a strong impetus to address the challenges for press freedom and everyone’s right to engage in public participation.
The Media Reform Initiative reiterates that no reform of the right to freedom of expression and for an effective press freedom can take place without open public consultation. The Media Reform Initiative recognises that the parliamentary opposition presented a motion reflecting the Initiative’s recommendation for parliament to establish a select committee and hopes that this proposal is accepted by ther government. It also recognises the government’s political promise of publishing a White Paper for legislative media reform. Both measures can jointly provide an opportunity for transparent dialogue with the scope of strengthening Malta’s democracy as long as each is not carried out merely as a tick the box exercise.