Malta vows better journalist protections, reforms

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Image Rene Rossignaud/AP

FILE - In this Friday, Nov. 29, 2019 file photo, people hold pictures of slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia as they protest outside the office of the Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, in Valletta, Malta.A European human rights watchdog is recommending that Malta legalize abortion, improve gender equality and implement reforms to protect journalists.The Council of Europes rights commissioner also referred to the conclusions of a public inquiry which found that the Maltese state has to bear responsibility for the 2016 assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia due the culture of impunity that emanated from the highest levels of government. (AP Photo/Rene Rossignaud, File)

VALLETTA – The Maltese government on Tuesday responded to a critical European human rights evaluation by vowing to soon propose new legislation to better protect journalists in the wake of the 2017 assassination of investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia.

The government said it was consulting with national and international organizations about possible reforms and would present proposed legislation to parliament “in the near future.”

The government was responding to a preliminary report from the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatović, who made a host of recommendations to better protect the rights of women, journalists and migrants after a recent visit to the Mediterranean island nation.

Mijatovic called for the government to implement as “a top priority” the recommendations of a public inquiry which found that the Maltese state “has to bear responsibility” for Caruana Galizia’s murder because of the culture of impunity that emanated from the highest levels of government.

The government hasn’t identified which of the inquiry's recommendation it plans to implement. But among other things, the inquiry called for a formal police unit to identify which people, not just journalists, could be exposed to serious attacks that could escalate to physical violence. The unit would serve as immediate point of contact for journalists so they could feel safe and protected while doing their jobs.

Caruana Galizia was killed on Oct. 16, 2017 when a powerful car bomb exploded as she was driving near her home. She had been trying to unearth links between financial dealings indicated by the leaked Panama Papers documents and prominent political and business figures on the small European Union nation, as well as working on other investigative stories.

Mijatovic has noted that Caruana Galizia had been facing 40 criminal and civil defamation lawsuits at the time of her death, and has called for Maltese authorities to take measures to address the use of such malicious lawsuits, known as SLAPP suits, to silence and intimidate the media.

The government said it will be implementing anti-SLAPP measures.

Caruana Galizia's murder sparked international outrage and prompted the European Parliament to send a fact-finding mission to Malta. The country had separately been in the spotlight following the Panama revelations, as two high-ranking government officials at the time were found to have acquired two companies in Panama.

In her preliminary report, Mijatovic also called for Malta to decriminalize abortion, ensure reproductive health care and gender equity for women.

The government in its response Tuesday noted that it doesn’t have any mandate to change Malta's abortion laws but that the prime minister has called for continued debate on the decriminalizing the procedure.