Freedom of expression discussed in Malta

Debates about online defamation, and about citizenship and the Internet, were on the agenda of a recent visit to Malta by UNESCO’s Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Guy Berger.

Invited by Maltese professor, Joe Cannataci, who also serves as UN’s new Special Rapporteur for Privacy, Berger delivered two public lectures.

Speaking in an interactive session at the Faculty of Media and Knowledge Sciences at the University of Malta on February 26, Berger highlighted links between citizenship and media in the information age.

“States are entrusted to respect and protect citizens’ rights to freedom of expression,” said Berger. The rationale of public service media was precisely to develop audiences as citizens rather than consumers.

At the same time, human rights were not limited to national citizens, Berger added. In the light of the refugee crisis, it was relevant to note the UN 1985 Declaration on the Human Rights of individuals who are not nationals of the country in which they live.

“This signals the importance of ‘aliens’ enjoying the same rights to freedom of expression and opinion as citizens, and of public media coverage of immigrant and refugee issues”.

Berger noted that the nexus of citizenship, human rights and media was challenged by the Internet. “Despite the notions of ‘cybercitizens’ or ‘netizens’, it is complicated for a citizen’s state to deal with associated rights in global online space.”

As a result, he concluded, it is important to develop norms across the Internet that respect human rights, and to recognise the role of public service communications in the online environment. 

“In this way, the idea of global citizenship online, along with quality journalism in cyberspace, can provide a powerful shield and sword for advancing human rights on the Internet.”

Berger also delivered a presentation about defamation in the digital age. A panel of eminent Maltese lawyers, academics, and political and media leaders provided responses during the event which was organized by the University’s Department of Media and Journalism in conjunction with Tumas Fenech Foundation for Education in Journalism. 

The UNESCO Director examined how the Internet impacted on the balancing of the right to freedom of expresson with the right to reputation.

“UNESCO’s concept of Internet Universality provides a basis for this balance online by linking to the principles of openness, accessibility and multi-stakeholder participation,” said Berger.