Press laws not strong enough

The government cannot take its tweaked laws as a fait accompli, without a convincing public consultation that takes on board also important observations on the legislation proposed, by international NGOs

The initial reaction to the press laws being proposed by the government, supposedly on the strength of advice and feedback from its appointed media experts committee, is that it has disregarded not the volume of recommendations; but a substantial, or significant portion of recommendations designed to establish an enabling environment for free journalism.

The State proposed to give Constitutional recognition to freedom of the media as a public watchdog together with the right to exercise free journalism as fundamental elements of democracy. Yet these will not be entrenched with corresponding obligations of the State in the all-important Chapter IV of the Constitution. By instead of inserting it as a declaration in Chapter II of the Constitution, it means this can be amended with a simple majority vote, and then again is not even enforceable before a court of law. That gives the press no claimable rights.

The Committee sought an entrenchment which protects the press and journalists from interference by any public authority, the entrenchment of the protection of sources and any information that may identify sources, and the right of everyone to access independent journalism and pluralistic press. These proposals were disregarded.

Constitutional amendments for the right to seek information, as a basic component of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of information, were left out, ignoring the proposals of the committee and the recommendations of the OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, and Article 19.

By refusing to declare that public authorities have an obligation to provide access to information, this leaves out an enforceable government policy for disclosure, transparency and accountability, rather than non-disclosure of information held by public authorities.

Government even rejected the committee’s most important proposal for a declaration of principle recognising the State’s obligation to promote the autonomy of the press and to provide an enabling environment to facilitate journalism.

And the jury is certainly out on the anti-SLAPP measures, because the tweaked law disregards the recommendations provided by OSCE and Article 19. Rather than meeting international minimum standards for protection of persons engaged in public participation from manifestly unfounded and abusive proceedings, journalists will still be open to threats from SLAPPs.

What is clear is that the government cannot take its tweaked laws as a fait accompli, without a convincing public consultation that takes on board also important observations on the legislation proposed, by international NGOs.

On one hand, the work of the media experts committee selected by government provided an organised sounding board for the laws proposed by the State.

But the observations of the OSCE representative on media freedom and Article 19, as well as far-reaching proposals first tabled in the Opposition’s Bills (which were voted against the State, some of which was integrated in the proposed laws by the media experts committee), cannot be ignored.

By taking the tweaked laws immediately to the House, bypassing an important stage of public consultation that happens in so many other aspects of public life – planning for example, with its public consultation hearings; the myriad green papers issued for public consultation by the government ministries; or the public hearings that took place during various parliamentary committees, for example, the ample space given to conservatives during the hearings on the yet-to-pass Equality Bill – why not give other journalists, media practitioners, and international NGOs, ample space to improve these laws?

There is still time to improve these laws. Government must be open to changes. If it purports to truly reflect a wish to create a more enabling environment for transparency and the promotion of free journalism, it cannot steamroll its way through parliament with these laws.