The freedom and protection of journalists have been major topics over the past few weeks. Although ELSA Malta agrees with the removal of criminal libel, as well as the removal of the right to a garnishee both on money and on assets in libel cases as being a good thing which protect important values of democratic societies, ELSA Malta believes that some clauses of the proposed law are of certain concern. ELSA Malta also has reservations regarding the proposal of a ‘media register’ with which all editors and publishers need to be enlisted. In brief, a publisher is anyone who is able to create printed matter, and printed matter includes “any material uploaded on a website”. This particular clause has left many wondering whether their private posts on their social media accounts leave them open to lawsuits. It should also be noted that anyone who is not in compliance with this clause faces a fine of €1,000. As law students, we require immediate clarification on the purpose of this law and encourage the authorities to revise this proposal.
This law aims at putting websites at par with newspapers. Though in the case of major news-portals this may not be of particular issue, it might affect the smaller entities within the online spectrum. Independent bloggers who opine about current affairs would now need to register, as would, for example, student news organisations. The protection of a journalist’s source is also limited to entities which have registered with the proposed ‘media register’. After filling that particular requirement, one needs to exercise the profession of a journalist on a part-time or full-time basis. ELSA Malta has concerns on how independent opinionists who sporadically offer their opinions online are affected with this specific requirement. It should therefore be noted that this attempt at bringing websites at par with newspapers is being done with complete disregard to the freedom which the internet offers to citizens.
Furthermore, as students, and people who regard the internet as an essential tool of communication and networking, we believe that no persons for whatever reason should be hindered from internet freedom whatever the circumstance. ELSA Malta notes that the MADA is modelled upon the UK Defamation Act, 2013. This being said there are notable differences in Section 5, wherein the editor is put at risk by the actions of other. This difference can be seen clearly as the UK Defamation Act states that: “It is a defence for the operator to show that it was not the operator who posted the statement on the website”, whilst the MADA states that “It is a defence in mitigation of damages for the editor to show that it was not the operator or person who posted the statement on the website”. It should also be noted that Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’
ELSA Malta are concerned about the compliance of the proposed bill with this particular right. ELSA Malta calls upon the Government to clarify the purposes and clauses of this bill so as not to leave the people in doubt. ELSA Malta stresses the fact that the media and the Government should have an adversary relationship in the sense that the media should hold the Government to scrutiny and hope to see that the authorities do allow the professionals to do their job freely and fairly with no hindrance whatsoever.