The existence of Criminal Libel in a jurisdiction which respects free speech is anachronistic.
Criminal libel is often found in developing countries where such laws (generally taken from the British common law model) are used for political control of the media through the threat of harsher penalties imposed through criminal law. In Malta there’s even the bizarre reality of journalists suing other journalists for Criminal defamation.
Churchill is well known to have used this method to retaliate against Alfred Douglas – a poet – who in 1924 served six months in prison for literary license. Speech was not yet free. The UK has since abolished criminal libel.
Malta is still struggling with this notion. Magistrate Francesco Depasquale has recently called on Parliament to abolish criminal libel. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1999 stated that: “sanctions for defamation should not be so large as to exert a chilling effect on freedom of expression and the right to seek, receive and impart information; penal sanctions, in particular imprisonment, should never be applied.”
The Malta IT Law Association issued a statement on the matter which is copied below. I serve as the Vice President of this Association.
Removal of criminal defamatory libel should be a priority
Further clarity on how press laws apply to online activities is required. The deregulated global economy requires less onerous restrictions surrounding free speech.
MITLA endorses recent calls for the removal of criminal defamatory libel from our statute books especially due to the multiplying effect that the Internet creates with online information.
Malta should follow the examples of other jurisdictions (including the United Kingdom) which have completely revised the criminal law implications of defamatory libel. This discussion becomes even more relevant when one considers the ever-changing nature of the Internet and how citizens use such medium to share and impart information.
In light of today’s connected world, the widespread use of social networks and the ubiquitous nature of technology, every internet user has become an author and only a few are aware of the potential risks that presently exist when one shares defamatory statements or information written by others. Our laws currently still fail to clearly distinguish between the original author and someone who, merely through the sharing of that information, might potentially make himself liable to criminal defamation.
Furthermore, MITLA believes that a general re-hash of our Press Act should be seriously considered. Even though our Courts have in the past few years repeatedly extended the reach of the current version of the Press Act, and the definitions contained therein, to the Internet, a more detailed and clear law would indeed assist the judiciary in those cases where technological realties have pushed the boundaries of our appreciation of what we can and cannot do online into a legal grey area.
In the coming weeks, MITLA shall engage with stakeholders in order to pro-actively initiate a wider discussion on these issues, not only with respect to matters that purely focus on technology and press law, but also in relation to freedom of expression in general. MITLA firmly believes that the abolition of criminal defamatory libel will help to keep democracy alive and promote responsible journalism.