When Daphne Caruana Galizia hit the headlines through her writings on Chris Cardona’s voyage to Germany, the minister responded through libels and garnishee orders. Some said he did the right thing, many others said that he overreacted. This was a threat to press freedom, they argued.
The Labour government immediately hit the media sphere by both supporting Cardona and proposing new press legislation. The latter is being promoted as a guarantor of free speech, but it seems more of a rash mish-mash of à la carte proposals which contradict each other. Looks like European continental breakfast stir-fried and topped with Chinese soy sauce.
Indeed, if Cardona’s garnishee order opened a Pandora’s box of opposition, the government’s subsequent actions opened even bigger ones.
On the one hand, the new media proposal does away with contentious criminal libel. Journalistic defences in civil libel suits will be broadened, and warrants in libel lawsuits will be banned. So far so good.
But on the other hand, the proposed law also suggests that Malta-based websites dealing with news or current affairs have to register in a government-controlled system. Failure to do so can result in fines. Critics are stating that this is reminiscent of authoritarian regimes.
Many questions follow. What exactly is a news or current affairs website? And what isn’t? And what exactly will the government internet register do? What if government starts introducing restrictive conditions for such websites, driving them out of the business of free speech?
Let us keep in mind that in authoritarian regimes, state agencies carry out surveillance not only for security purposes but also to stifle criticism, repress dissidents and track down protest. Activists in Hong Kong, Turkey, Russia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan know something about this.
Ever conscious about its media communiques, the government is now investing in a damage control exercise. Justice Minister Owen Bonnici recently tried to assure critics that the proposed legislation was aimed at news websites, and said the government was open to defining this better in the proposed law.
But assurances from the Labour government must be put into context. This is the same government that promised transparency of public contracts, accountability, fixing the Sai Mizzi Liang mess, you name it.
Writing on the proposed media law, Malta Today columnist Raphael Vassallo couldn’t have put it better when he stated that “if it ain’t broke, don’t reinvent it”. And Malta’s internet sphere, with all its plusses and minuses, is one of the pillars of its liberal democracy. Legal remedies already exist against fake or libellous news posted on the internet. If anything, they should be refined and not substituted by proposals that would make Putin proud.
Citizens who are not involved in the public sphere may not care about the proposed legislation. But practically all citizens are involved in the internet, so they can end up being sucked in the law’s ramifications should it rear its ugly head.
But paradoxically, the dark side of the government’s proposals can also serve as a motivation for net-resistance. And it already is.
The internet is not a physical publishing house which can be burned down. Its messages are multi-directional and can be disseminated from anyone at any time and in every corner of the world. Sure, governments and big businesses have more resources at their disposal, but the recipients of messages can also be the producers of dissent. And net resistance can never be captured and completely stopped.
These past days offered some colourful examples. Take the Egrant ownership news item which was obviously orchestrated to coincide with the Pana committee’s visit to Malta. Rather than clearing the air, it resulted in a chorus of disbelief on the social media. If anything, government is now even less credible than it was in the run-up to Pana.
Some days later, the government suddenly proposed gay marriage and millons of euros’ worth of social housing. Again, the timing of these proposals suggested that they were attempts to divert from issues which are embarrassing the government. And this was pointed out by many on the web. The issue was not whether the government was proposing the right thing, but whether government is running out of media tricks.