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Criminal libel is history as new media law comes into force

Media and Defamation law finally enters the books

Photo: Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

Criminal libel is now a thing of the past, with lawmakers having passed a revised Media and Defamation Bill into law.

The new Act, which came into force on Monday, means all pending criminal libel cases are no longer valid and will be immediately dismissed.

It supercedes a Press Act which has been in force since the 1970s.

As well as abolishing criminal libel, the Act removes references to offending “public morals or decency”, prevents plaintiffs from filing garnishee orders against journalists – as minister Chris Cardona had against Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017 – and only allows applicants to file one libel suit per story.

Four years in the making, the bill had a laboured birth and is considerably different to the initial draft presented to MPs in early 2017.

That proposed bill had sparked controversy over its requirement for online blogs to register with a central media registrar, its doubling of libel penalties and its provision allowing pending criminal libel cases to continue unabated.

A second draft featuring 18 major changes was presented in parliament last November, with the major bones of contention having been revised.

That draft, however, also came in for criticism for its failure to include provisions protecting media houses and journalists from vexatious SLAPP suits – big money lawsuits filed by firms with deep pockets which are intended to cower media into submission.

Justice Minister Owen Bonnici insisted that legal advisors had unanimously concluded that the proposed anti-SLAPP amendments would violate EU regulations obliging member-states to recognise sentences handed down in any other member-state – an argument rejected by Opposition MPs.

Bipartisan efforts to strike criminal libel from Malta's laws date back years, with then-PN MP Franco Debono and Labour MP Jose' Herrera having argued for its removal back in 2012.

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