Student editors, national bloggers, and whole media houses have felt the pressure of Malta’s libel law being used to censor them over the years.
The original bill, known as the Press Act, passed into law in 1974. Over the years, the libel and defamation laws in Malta have been used at times to silence critics.
But the new law, known as the Media and Defamation Act, which is currently in the committee stages, is set to cause some major changes in the way libel and claims of falsehoods are judged on the island.
Here are some of the biggest changes coming Malta’s way.
1. One story equals one libel case
A person can no longer initiate the same libel case over the same story more than once. Previously, one could initiate a libel case on every instance an allegedly libellous story is published. For example, DB group had libelled Daphne Caruana Galizia every time she referred to a story she had written about them in her blog.
This will no longer be possible. Libel cases can only be initiated over a story once. If a publication published a libellous story multiple times, the publication can only be taken to court over one specific case.
2. Criminal libel is abolished
Libel cases will no longer be considered criminal cases, but civil suits. This means that the police will no longer have to take action over libel claims, instead putting the accuser directly up against the defendant.
3. No more garnishee orders for libel cases
Garnishee orders were previously used in an attempt to bankrupt journalists. This will no longer be the case since they will not be allowed anymore.
4. Libel damages will not be increased
The government had floated the idea of increasing libel damages. After a consultation period with groups such as Front Against Censorship, this has been scrapped – libel damages will remain the same.
5. The obscenity law is being removed
Article 7 of the Press Act had stated that anyone found injuring “public morals or decency” could face imprisonment for up to three months, or a fine. This will now be removed.
6. The media registrar is optional
The government had been mulling over the idea of a registrar for all media publications in Malta, ostensibly intended for administrative purposes in order for the courts to identify editors when a claimant comes forward.
However, they decided to make it optional. Media houses and editors may now decide whether to register or not.
7. There will be a new mediation mechanism
A new mediation mechanism where parties can go through mediation before going to court will be made available, in the hopes that the two parties can resolve their dispute without going to court.
The aim is to add another layer of protection for journalists and possibly save them from losing time and revenue.