The new media and defamation law proposed by the government in the midst of the Cardona vs Caruana Galizia saga, has one core defect. Instead of trying to pre-empt the problems of the future, it attempts to solve the problems of the past.
The bill does well to remove criminal libel and obscene libel. It is possibly even correct in contemplating damages for people who suffer personally as a result of their deceased relatives being libelled. But where the law falls short is in its attempt to categorise media or journalism.
Whoever wrote the law attempted to update the press law to be inclusive of websites, specifically online newspapers. In all probability, their logic was simple and not as Machiavellian as many have tried to portray. The current law stipulates that regular print publications have to register their editors with the press registrar, enabling the registrar to identify in court the editor of the newspaper on the day an alleged offence is committed. The legislator clearly thought the same had to be applied with online newspapers.
But while the law may have made sense several decades ago when there were only a few newspapers to register, it had eventually become a nightmare to operate once print became cheaper and more accessible. Every Church pamphlet, silly magazine or glorified discount flier technically had to be registered – even the likes of Lidl’s weekly offers gazette. And if editors changed or went on leave, the new editors of the day would have to inform the registrar.
The whole thing was unnecessarily bureaucratic because when it comes to libel, the big players are usually the ones to get sued. And they usually have very little problem identifying their editor.
But instead of removing the need to register a publication, the new law proposes to widen the register to news websites. And by trying to solve a largely non-existent problem, it has created many more.
“But instead of removing the need to register a publication, the new law proposes to widen the register to news websites. And by trying to solve a largely non-existent problem, it has created many more.”
In the digital age it is frankly impossible to determine what makes a website worthy of registration and what doesn’t. Hence the outrage and confusion that ensued when the proposed law was published. Does registration include Glaphne or other personal blogs? Does it include Lovin Malta? Does it include a Facebook page/group like Are You Being Served? Does it include a personal Facebook profile used for edgy social commentary like that of Mario Vella?
Rather than wasting time trying to define what constitutes a news website, we should instead be asking ourselves, do we even need to define this in the first place? After all, when it comes to defamation, is the medium as important as it used to be?
If you untruthfully call someone a pedophile or a wife-beater, your message today can reach just as many people on Facebook or Twitter as it can on a newspaper or TV programme. In fact, an individual’s social media profile has the potential to be more effective than TV or print because it can be shared within seconds all over the world.
And there are already laws in place – slander for example – to regulate this.
“A person’s right to privacy or reputation may today just as easily be breached by a graffiti artist, or a troll on Facebook, as by an article in one of the newspapers.”
In the age of citizen journalists and editors, we should not be trying to create different structures for whatever we define as proper journalists or proper current affairs websites. Instead we should focus on how victims of libel can access justice irrespective of where the message was published.
A person’s right to privacy or reputation may today just as easily be breached by a graffiti artist, or a troll on Facebook, as by an article in one of the newspapers.
This is why, after careful consideration, Lovin Malta has decided to contribute to the discussion on the media and defamation law by proposing alternative wording, succinctly put into the size of a Tweet.
While this is not intended as the lock, stock replacement of the bill being proposed, it is intended to be demonstrative of how fewer words can be more comprehensive and effective in mapping out a complicated law like this one. Effectively, we are proposing a bill that merges the different laws we have for libel (printed statements), slander (spoken statements) and defamation (an umbrella term for both):
Our hope is that when this law is revised – and we hope it is revised, not shelved for years – it follows the spirit of this simple statement instead of persisting with the concoction of a bureaucratic and cumbersome law that breeds suspicion and confusion.