Sunday 25 September 2022

Press Act reform: Less hysteria, more level-headed debate

This article first appeared on the Sunday edition of Malta Today

It is amazing just how easily misinformation and scaremongering can go viral. I have to raise my hand and say ‘mea culpa’ because I almost got sucked into too.

It all started on Thursday afternoon when I saw a status being shared to the effect that the new Media & Defamation Bill will require all websites operating from Malta to register themselves with a Media Registrar (i.e the State). This was followed by ominous warnings that our freedom of speech and democracy were at stake. Yes, I know, they were apparently also at stake last week, but it seems that this was now a new threat. (Sorry for sounding so flippant but we are quickly descending into ‘the boy who cried wolf’ territory.)

Because it was written and shared by several lawyers, the status quickly went viral.

When I skimmed through the Bill itself, the reference was to websites which contained news content, and as the owner of such a website, I also questioned what was behind this proposed amendment. To me it has always been obvious that as the owner of my domain which carries my name, I am ultimately responsible for it, and for any liability which may arise not only from what I write myself, but also the comments I upload by third parties. So on the surface of it (and because of the above-mentioned status) it smacked too much like someone was trying to “control the Internet”. This was where I, too, was almost swept away by what “everyone was saying”. In fact, it was pointed out to me that what the new Bill is actually proposing is that news websites should be treated like a newspaper and that whoever is responsible for the site, i.e. the online publisher/editor, needs to be registered in order to carry some degree of legal responsibility for the content published. To date, only newspapers need to have a registered editor under the Press Act, so this was basically just an updating of this part of the law.

Put like that it, it sounded quite reasonable, but by then it was too late. The story had taken on a life of its own. At the time of writing, the same incorrect information is still being repeated. Of course it didn’t help that some of the wording is rather vague (would it apply to any blog or website which made a passing reference to news, politics or current events? Would satirical sites or ‘light’ websites such as Lovin Malta also fall under this law? What about political commentary blogs by people who do not practice journalism full-time?). The mention of a 1000 Euro fine for those who do not register also rankled, and further perpetuated the image of a draconian law, a monster in the making, dragging heavy anachronistic chains, aimed to somehow take us back to darker times.

To many it set off loud clanging alarm bells, the dread of re-living a time we would rather not live through again, and it was not long before that perception spread like wildfire and soon turned into a firm belief. There were several references to Putin and to the muzzling of the media and to Big Brother. And oh yes, the inevitable mantra “back to the 80s”.

By Friday morning, it was not only a firm belief, but had turned into rock solid fact and the implications were dire: people were claiming with certainty that ANYONE with a website or blog would be affected, and even those with a Facebook page would have to register themselves. Plans were already underfoot to register blogs and websites abroad to avoid this nefarious “registration.” The PN, always sniffing around for a cause, obviously embraced this one with unbridled passion. The hysteria quickly spiralled out of control based on the initial misleading information, which then grew and grew as people hopped on the bandwagon and kept adding their own assumptions.

As it transpired, this was an over-reaction whose roots lie in our volatile political past. Let’s face it, the Labour party has a lot of historic baggage and a rather tattered track record when it comes to the media and freedom of expression, which is why the claim that this was a way of controlling what people write online was so easily believed by many. It is like a naughty child who is inevitably always blamed any time something gets broken in the house: to the parents, he always looks guilty despite his protestations that ‘it wasn’t me’.

In a nutshell, what this amendment is saying is that if you want to sue someone, you need to know who the registered editor is for legal culpability , and this should hold true for a website as much as it holds true for a newspaper. And while offhand I could not think of any websites which are anonymous, I had to admit that, as things stand, the possibility of shirking legal responsibility does exist.There also needs to be some degree of accountability for anonymous comments posted about third parties online and here again it is the registered editor who will be responsible for what is uploaded because (unlike Facebook) website comments are moderated before being published.

This is not to say that there are no grey areas – there are several, but this is just a Bill, and it is still open for public consultation. It is imperative therefore that the grey areas are removed, definitions are made crystal clear and all lingering doubts are dispelled. The clause which says that the protection of sources should only apply to those who register as editors is definitely very debatable and opens up a lot of questions. What classifies as a news website also needs to be specifically explained.

I think where we can all hopefully agree is that the Press Act does need an overhaul to reflect the new realities of the cyber world we live in, where people can hide behind fake names and start firing allegations and insinuations with impunity. There is already a certain laxness on FB where, because they are not talking to a person face to face, many are unbelievably insulting and nasty (and yes often opening themselves to libel) in a way they would never be in real life. For, it cannot be stressed enough that (despite what many assume) libel and defamation laws ALREADY apply to what you write online, despite the illusion of freedom it gives because it is oh-so-easy to type out a snarky public comment about someone on our smartphone from wherever we happen to be.

And lest you be tempted to say “only in Malta”, this issue has already been tested in UK Courts. According to a report entitled Warning to abusive bloggers as judge tells site to reveal names, published in The Guardian, “Court orders obliging websites to disclose the identity of users posting anonymous defamatory remarks began in 2001.”

So let us have a serious, long overdue debate on the rights, duties and obligations of online journalism, as well as the responsibilities involved in allowing unfettered anonymous comments to go unchecked on websites. But first let us leave hysteria, spin and misinformation at the door so that the discussion can be held in the spirit of level-headedness for the good of this much-maligned profession.

Powered by