Monday 23 May 2022

With more freedom, comes greater responsibility

This article first appeared on Malta Today

The considerable changes made to the Media & Defamation Bill have been welcomed by those who truly believe in a free press and the right to freedom of speech.

It is crucial that journalists and media houses are able to write, report and investigate stories of public interest, holding the authorities and politicians to account, without being shackled by the looming possibility of frivolous and possibly hefty libel suits filed by those who want to shut them up.

In this respect, perhaps the most significant changes have been the removal of criminal libel, the removal of the possibility to issue a precautionary warrant of journalists’ assets, a broader definition of what constitutes the protection of sources, and the fact that the maximum damages awarded will continue to be capped at €11,640 (contrary to the original Bill which had called for this amount to be doubled).

The significance of these changes cannot be overly stressed, for it has been all too easy in the past to try and cripple newspapers and other media organizations by filing one libel suit after another. Sometimes the libel suit would follow seriously damaging allegations which are based on rock solid evidence, but the plaintiff would still sue anyway, as a way of signaling to the world, “look, I sued for libel so it’s obviously not true”. This ties up the media organization, and the journalist who penned the article in question, in long, contentious litigation which takes years and lots of legal expenses as the wheels of our over-burdened justice system grind very slowly.

We were recently provided with a perfect example to illustrate this in the case of former news editor Ariadne Massa and former editor Steve Mallia of The Sunday Times. Just look at how long it took for them to be vindicated after they were sued for libel by the Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses committee for their story about patients being swindled in a scam “involving top MUMN officials”. Seven long years. The executive committee sued them not because the facts were not true (they were) but because they felt the sub-heading was defamatory in their regard when they were not involved in any way (in fact, the nurse in question was the chairman of the union’s sub-committee). After losing the case, and after the Court of Appeal reduced the damages from 10,000 Euro to 4000 Euro, Ms Massa and Mr Mallia took their case to the Constitutional Court claiming that their right to freedom of expression had been violated.

In the meantime their bank accounts and salaries to the amount of €4,000 had been frozen following a court’s garnishee order because the damages had not been paid since the Constitutional case was still pending.

Last month they finally won their case and were awarded €2,000 each in damages.

“It remains all too easy for vindictive court cases to be instituted for publishing investigative stories that are in the public interest, and it takes far too long (in this case seven years) for well-intentioned journalists to earn vindication,” they were quoted as saying.

In the past, we have seen frivolous suits by public figures who have felt aggrieved by even the slightest criticism when really, holding public office means you should be able to take even ridicule on the chin and just keep going. So it is very much a step forward that now libel will only be considered to be so if the words cause serious damage to a person’s reputation.

Of course, there is always the other side of the coin. If the tonne of mud thrown at someone has been found by the Courts to have been completely unfounded and not based on facts, the sum of €11,640 does not only seem paltry in comparison to the damage caused, but it will not even begin to wash away the mud, which has very much a tendency to stick. Among the changes being proposed in the new Media & Defamation Bill, it is being urged that rather than litigation, the two parties should try to find alternative remedies such as the right of reply, an apology, a retraction and so on. While this is good news for the Courts as it will mean less libel suits clogging up the system, the injured party may still feel that their lives have been ruined by the libelous and defamatory statements because people still tend to remember the ‘bad’ stuff, rather than the fact that it was later withdrawn.

This is where the greater sense of responsibility by us journalists comes in – because now that there will be a much-needed greater freedom of the press, the onus is also on us to make sure that, more than ever, we get things right the first time. The rush to print, to publish, to broadcast, to upload and to be the first with a scoop cannot mean that we sacrifice the truth. We are living in a time when the public is constantly suspicious of who to believe because it is caught up in a whirlwind of fake news, bogus stories and allegations based merely on hearsay which have not been verified (the antithesis of good journalism). It is therefore up to us who work in the media to constantly prove that we are not only upholding the right to free speech, but are also upholding our duty to be ethical and accurate in everything we write.

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