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Editorial | Wednesday, 24 March 2010 Issue. 156

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A waste of taxpayer’s time and money

If proof were still required that the two larger parties are in cahoots with each other on a wide variety of issues – to the detriment of all other concerns, not least the national interest – one need look no further than our front-page revelation today.
It transpires that the Nationalist and Labour parties are currently conducting secret negotiations regarding the inordinate number of libel cases instituted against each other over the past two years.
Evidently, the sheer volume of these vexatious lawsuits – 77 cases in all, for a total value estimated to exceed €1 million – far outweighs the political advantage of waging one’s electoral campaign in the Halls of Justice... especially when it is an open secret that both parties are beleaguered by debt, and already unable to financially maintain their enormous and exorbitant media interests.
But the situation also speaks volumes about the true allegiances of our country’s legislators. It illustrates with perfect clarity how both the Nationalist and Labour parties are ultimately more interested in scratching each other’s backs and safeguarding each other’s privileges, than in reforming the country’s laws to the benefit of all.
After all, these same two parties occupy both sides of the House of Representatives, and as such they can very easily agree on a reform of the Malta Press Act to address the entire issue of vexatious libel suits, lock stock and barrel... and not just the cases in which they themselves are embroiled as protagonists.
And there is much need to reform the Malta Press Act, too: a law that recognises as grounds for libel even the act of ‘exposing a person to public ridicule’ (thus criminalising all cartoonists and satirical writers in one fell swoop); and which also persists in retaining an archaic clause which allows for prison sentences, no less, in the event of criminal libel.
All this could be updated to 21st century standards, if only the same two parties showed as much willingness to co-operate on national issues, as they do when it comes to their own political and financial interests. But no: neither PN nor PL appears remotely keen on effecting this much-needed reform – despite a clear commitment in this regard, by current Justice Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici, in the 2005 White Paper for Administrative Justice.
After all, why amend a law that has so many practical uses for the unscrupulous politician? In Malta there is a long and unwholesome tradition of using our libel laws as a weapon to defend one’s own electoral interests – either by piling pressure on ‘unfriendly’ media houses, thus effectively muzzling the free press; or by drowning justified criticism under an ocean of legalese, snug in the knowledge that libel cases invariably drag on for years, far outliving the nature of the originally offence.
Here this newspaper can talk from experience: the entire PN administrative council filed a collective lawsuit against MaltaToday over a single editorial in 2004; and elsewhere, former deputy PL leader Michael Falzon filed entirely vexatious libel suit, as did former PL parliamentary secretary Louis Buhagiar.
More pertinently still, the revelation of secret inter-party talks also exposes once and for all the cavalier attitude of both the PN and PL to the law courts themselves –which, it must be said, have unaccountably allowed themselves to be exploited for purely political ends before each and every single election.
Incredibly – and despite constant complaints of an unmanageable backlog of cases, often resulting in unacceptable delays in the administration of justice – the Law Courts appear reluctant to object to the clearly political use currently being made of Malta’s libel laws... a use which by extension results in periodic explosions in the number unnecessary court actions before each election, national or local.
On another level, the existence of a secret agreement also cements the popular perception of the ‘cosy relationship’ that so clearly exists between the two parties, in spite of the carefully cultivated perception of mutual antagonism. Evidence of such collusion is visible practically everywhere you look – from a Data Protection Act which makes exceptions for political parties; to an ‘understanding’ not to investigate campaign overspending (in spite public admissions by candidates on both sides during the last European elections); to a wall of silence on the issue of political party financing; and not least, to the parties’ perennial refusal to reform Electoral Law.
Lastly, one must also question the credibility of the political parties themselves, and of individual candidates who rush to the law courts at even the slightest of offences – ready and willing to waste taxpayers’ time and money on a frivolous court action, which will last for as long as it is politically expedient to the candidate... but will promptly be settled out of court, the moment the potential for electoral gain is no longer there.
All things told, small wonder that public faith in the political system is at an all-time low, and continues to plummet.


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A waste of taxpayer’s time and money

Anna Mallia
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