ARTICLE 19 has commented on the proposals made by the Maltese Government to improve the protection of journalists and media freedom in the country. While we welcome the government’s initiative to address these issues, we remain concerned that these proposals will not be comprehensive enough to address the challenges journalists face when exercising their right to freedom of expression. Particularly, we note the lack of a proper framework to prevent strategic litigation against public participation (SLAPP). In our analysis, we raise concerns that the proposals do not address a range of issues that journalists face, from harassment to lengthy court proceedings for defamation. We encourage the government to take further steps to meet its international human rights obligations and fully protect and promote a safe media environment in Malta by offering a range of recommendations for how the proposals can fully ensure the protection of journalists.
In 2017, journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated in Malta. This led to serious discussions regarding the safety of journalists in the country. Based on the recommendations set out in the Public Inquiry following her death, the government put a Committee of Experts on Media in place, tasked with analysing the state of media freedom in Malta and providing legislative recommendations to the Prime Minister on how to better protect journalists and media freedom. In order to reach this goal, in January 2022, the government released two drafts proposing to amend the Constitution and other laws, as well as to establish structures to strengthen democratic society. Additionally, the Opposition also published its own legislative proposals.
ARTICLE 19 welcomes the initiative by the government, as well as the Opposition, to address the shortfalls of the current legislative system and further address the situation of human rights in the country. Several provisions are positive steps forward, including those attempting to limit the liability of the heirs and of the publisher in case of the death of an author or editor. In addition, the proposals by the Opposition contain certain strong protections and should be duly considered by the government.
However, based on our analysis of the proposals, we remain sceptical that they will achieve the change needed to protect journalists. In particular, we draw attention to the following issues:
- The proposed restrictions on the freedom of expression of public officers do not meet international standards. The aim of ‘maintaining confidence in the public service’ is overly broad and open to abuse. This provision could be used to silence whistleblowers or officials who are critical of the government.
- While we appreciate the attempt to limit the enforcement of defamation judgements from third countries in Malta, the provisions are not clear and do not provide sufficient protection against SLAPPs. Indeed, the protections are only directed towards SLAPPs initiated in third countries, offering no protection against those initiated in Malta. Without protections in Malta, a SLAPP case from a third country could still be enforced in Malta according to national standards.
- Threats, including harassment, that risk putting journalists’ safety at risk are not sufficiently addressed. Aggravated penalties for bodily harm are welcome but do not cover all the threats that journalists face every day that put them at risk.
In order to limit the effect of SLAPPs, we recommend that the government consider the following:
- Adopt comprehensive measures against SLAPPs, including early dismissal procedures for both the court and the defendant;
- Specify the aggravating circumstance when a victim is specifically targeted for exercising their right to freedom of expression;
- The term ‘journalist’ should be understood as broadly as possible in order to include a wide range of media workers;
- Strengthen the protection of journalists in the country by enacting a National Action Plan on the Safety of Journalists;
- Collaborate with journalists, media outlets and civil society to better understand what is needed to ensure the full protection of media freedom.