Fact-checking Prime Minister Robert Abela

10 April 2024

Prime Minister Abela recently commented about media freedom. We fact-checked his claims.

PM: “If the media is to become a fourth pillar of democracy, it will need to subject itself to regulatory checks and balances. Each pillar of government can scrutinise the other - that’s the way our Constitution is set up.”

This claim is false. The purpose of Constitutional recognition of media freedom as a pillar of democracy is to provide protection against abusive interference or restriction by the State. Public interest media are not a branch of the State and should not be subjected to State regulation and control.

PM: “[The executive, the legislative and the judicial branches of the State] all have regulatory frameworks. They don’t have unlimited powers without corresponding obligations.”

This is correct, but it doesn’t follow that public interest media should be regulated in the same way. Constitutional recognition of the media as the fourth pillar of democracy does not place the media above the law. It is the basis of protecting the media’s freedom to fulfil its role as a check on State power. To claim otherwise is misleading.

Regulatory frameworks for the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the State provide checks and balances on abuse of State power. Media scrutiny of the branches of the State is an essential part of keeping State power in check. The media speak truth to power and inform citizens on what those they entrust with power are doing in their name.

PM: “Any pillar that is added [to the Constitution] will come with its own regulatory requirements and frameworks.”

This claim is false. Public interest media are not an organ of the State and therefore should not be subject to the same regulatory checks and balances as the government, the parliament, and the judiciary.

PM: “The anti-SLAPP legislation which we proposed is even stronger than the [EU] Directive. What I would like, now that the directive is in force at EU level, that we implement it as soon as possible”

The legislation government originally proposed does not meet the standards of the EU directive. Daphne’s Law, the EU anti-SLAPP Directive, is aimed at reining in vexatious lawsuits against journalists and activists. The Maltese government’s proposed anti-SLAPP legislation was drafted before the European Parliament adopted Daphne’s Law. The draft legislation must be updated to meet international standards, incorporating the provisions of Daphne’s Law and the Council of Europe Recommendation, adopted on 5 April 2024, on countering the use of SLAPPs.

PM: “All the changes that we need to make to strengthen the journalism sector should come into effect … These are all laws that strengthen the position of a journalist.”

The position of journalists is strengthened primarily by the State acting swiftly on the subjects of their reporting. The changes that need to come into effect include the implementation of the rule of law recommendations of the public inquiry into Daphne’s assassination (p. 432-435: “Specific amendments for the introduction of new crimes and consolidation of existing laws”; “Recommendations for legislative reforms for the consolidation of the Rule of Law”). These are critical to ensuring journalists’ safety. If they aren’t implemented, the conditions that made Daphne’s murder possible will persist, leaving lives at risk.

PM: “Once these laws are implemented, will journalism become the fourth pillar of democracy? … These are all catalysts, precursors. These all need to come into effect first, to protect the journalism sector.”

This claim is false. Recognition of media as the fourth pillar of democracy is realised through constitutional change, not through the cumulative effect of changes to ordinary law. The purpose of legislative change is to create an enabling environment for public interest journalism. Constitutional recognition of media freedom underpins changes to ordinary law.

PM: “We launched … 5 or 6 pieces of legislation … and there’s criticism that the government doesn’t want to implement the recommendations. We do want to implement those.”

The government has consistently ignored the recommendations on the rule of law made by the public inquiry board members in the report they presented to the Prime Minister on 29 July 2021. Almost three years later, the only action the government has taken on the rule of law recommendations has been to sabotage attempts to enact legislation to implement them, and to otherwise ignore them. In January 2022, the Prime Minister appointed a “Committee of Experts” to advise on implementation. The committee’s terms of reference excluded the public inquiry’s rule of law recommendations.

PM: “I have wanted for months for those proposals to become law. Those laws could have been enacted months ago.”

In October 2023, the government promised to publish a White Paper on the implementation of the public inquiry recommendations. Six months later, the government has neither published the White Paper nor said when it will be published. If the government moves to enact its proposed legislation without publishing a White Paper, it will be in breach of its own commitment. In October 2022, the government promised public consultation on reforms. No proper process of public consultation was initiated.