Venice Commission: lack of public consultation akin to denying citizens their democratic entitlement.

Part I – Reform Process

In this two part series, we will be looking at Venice Commission Opinion CDL-AD(2020)019 adopted in October 2020 on the acts and bills that sought to implement the proposals for legislative changes which were the subject of Opinion CDL-AD(2020)006 adopted in June 2020.

In Part I, we examine the Venice Commission’s reaction to the procedure used by the Government in adopting the first 6 Acts which are subject of the Opinion. In the Part II, a look will be had at the substantive comments on the 6 adopted acts and finally, Part III will review the remaining 4 pending bills.

Backdrop: Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination

On the 8th October 2020 the Venice Commission adopted an Opinion on the ten acts and bills implementing the legislative proposals put forward by the Maltese government. This is the 4th Opinion adopted by the Commission on Malta since 2018. The process relating to the Malta’s constitutional amendments, separation of powers and independence of the judiciary kicked off in October 2018 by a request of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to the Venice Commission.

The request to the Venice Commission from the PACE originated in a proposal by the Rapporteur of the report on “Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination and the rule of law, in Malta and beyond: ensuring that the whole truth emerges”. The Venice Commission had noted then that the request for should be understood against this backdrop, although its remit is exclusively limited to the examination of Malta’s constitutional amendments.

Reaction: A hidden & rushed parliamentary process

Interestingly, it can be noted that the Government transmitted the 10 bills to the Venice Commission as restricted documents which could not be circulated to the public without prior authorisation. The Minister requested an opinion by way of urgency, to which the Venice Commission replied by stating that it would not prepare an opinion by way of urgency but that it would be finalised at the beginning of October 2020.

The Venice Commission also recalled that it had insisted that the Maltese authorities should have a meaningful exchange with all stakeholders on the basis of texts that should be public. It strongly called:

… for wide consultations and a structured dialogue with civil society, parliamentary parties, academia, the media and other institutions, in order to open a free and unhampered debate of the current and future reforms, including for constitutional revision, to make them holistic. The process of the reforms should be transparent and open to public scrutiny not least through the media.” – paragraph 99 Opinion CDL-AD(2020)006.

The lack of publicity of the texts up until the last minute meant that bills, that will have profound and long-term impact on Maltese society, were not scruntised by civil society, parliamentary parties, academia, the media and other institutions. This was done against the repeated recommendations of the Venice Commission that called for wide consultations with society as a whole.

Cutting short any meaningful dialogue

In spite of this, on the 29th July 2020, the Maltese Parliament went ahead and approved 6 out of the 10 Bills it had previously presented to the Venice Commission. In reaction to this, the Opinion noted with regret that the Bills were adopted before the Opinion could be finalised and without any structured dialogue with all stakeholders as recommended.

The Venice Commission stressed that it was “critical of the procedure followed by the Maltese Government, which it regrets” and that the rushed and opaque procedures essentially cut short any meaning dialogue with Maltese society. It noted that the 6 wide-ranging bills were rushed through Parliament in just 29 days between the first reading and adoption. Furthermore, it noted that 4 bills were made public after 16 days from their presentation at first reading in Parliament.

Unanimity in the Maltese Parliament is an ambivalent matter

In scathing words, the Venice Commission noted that confining discourse to the political parties in parliament, without meaningful public consultation, was akin to denying citizens their democratic entitlement to have a say in the shaping of the constitutional order of Malta. The text of the Opinion goes so far as to say that although unanimity may be seen as a sign of broad consensus, it could also be interpreted as:

proving the closedness of the political system and the fact that common vested interests bind the majority and the opposition together.” paragraph 16 – Opinion CDL-AD(2020)019

Finally, the Venice Commission repeatedly states that the procedures adopted by the Maltese authorities in carrying out these reforms go against the literal and overall thrust of their previous opinions.


In Part II of this series, which will be published next week, will look at the substantive comments to 6 acts adopted by Parliament relating to:

  • Reforms relating to the judicial review of decisions not to prosecute;
  • Amendments to laws regulating the Office of the Ombudsman;
  • Constitutional amendments relating to the appointment of the judiciary;
  • Constitutional amendments relating to the appointment of the President;
  • Constitutional and other amendments relating to the removal from office of the judiciary; and
  • Reforms relating to the appointments to the Permanent Commission Against Corruption.

In May 2020, aditus had the opportunity to discuss its views on the proposed changes, together with other local civil society actors, with the rapporteurs of the Venice Commission. This was followed by a publication of its feedback on Malta’s proposed legislative changes. We had already then noted our frustration at the lack of broad civil society involvement in the formulating any of the intended changes put forward by the Government.


Just published: our Annual Report for our activities in 2019

We’ve just published the Annual Report covering our activities for 2019. This report is a mandatory document for our reporting to the Commissioner for Voluntary Organisations as also a confirmation of our committment to transparency and accountability.

The report provides information on the activities, initiatives and engagements we worked on throughout the year. It also gives readers an insight into the major achievements and challenges we faced in the year. Importantly, it provides information on the human rights landscape of 2019 and our position within it.

The report is freely available on our Publications page, here.

This is my introduction to the Annual Report. We’re more than happy to provide more information on the Report’s content and our activities…just get in touch with us.


2019 will go down in history as one of Malta’s most tumultuous years. On-going investigations into the brutal assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia continued to unveil shocking stories of corruption at Malta’s highest political levels, including the Office of the Prime Minister and other Ministries, as well as in Malta’s most prominent and influential business circles. The impact on the nation was unprecedented, with upset crowds – led by civil society organisations – taking to the streets for several days with loud calls for justice, accountability and resignations. At the end of the year, the disgraced Prime Minister resigned as also the disgraced Minister for Tourism and the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff.

The scandals are nowhere near resolved and justice for Daphne and for the criminal activities she was in the process of revealing is far from being secured. In a recent opinion piece, I underlined that, as long as Joseph Muscat and Konrad Mizzi remain members of Parliament, Malta will remain besieged by corruption and criminal activity, unable to restore democracy.

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National Media Report on the representation in the media of suspects and accused persons

Project Partners: Hungarian Helsinki Committee (Lead Partner), aditus foundation, Fair Trials Europe, Human Rights House Zagreb, Mérték, Rights International Spain, Vienna University. Supported by: This project is funded by the European Union’s Justice Programme (2014 – 2020)

According to EU Directive (EU) 2016/343 on the strengthening of certain aspects of the presumption of innocence and of the right to be present at the trial in criminal proceeding proceedings, Member States must ensure that suspects and accused persons are not presented as being guilty, in court or in public through the use of measures of physical restraint such as handcuffs, glass boxes, cages and leg irons.

aditus, together with the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and partners (Fair Trials Europe, Human Rights House Zagreb, Mérték, Rights International Spain and the Vienna University), have been working together to increase knowledge and sensitivity to the presumption of innocence among professionals and the public. The Importance of Appearances: How Suspects and Accused Persons are presented in the Courtroom, in Public and in the Media project page can be accessed on this link.

Over the past year the aditus team, coordinated by our Assistant Director Carla Camilleri, has been carrying out a media review in order to collect and analyse data on the media representation of suspects and accused persons at all stages of the arrest and subsequent legal proceedings in Malta. This process included a sampling phase spanning a number of months of all news reporting relating to arrests of suspects or criminal court proceedings in printed newspapers, online portals and TV broadcasts in both the Maltese and English language press. The ultimate purpose of the research was to identify good and bad practice regarding the presumption of innocence in various sectors of the media. Stories were selected and coded by all project partners in their respective countries in accordance with the guidelines and procedures developed by the Vienna University team.

The results of the Maltese media review were collated into a National Media Report, which can be read in full here. The Report gives an overview of the laws, legal guidelines and legal framework relating to the media and criminal justice. It also gives a contextual outline of the media landscape in Malta, focusing on printed media and their websites, online news portals and also television broadcasts.

In the course of the research, the main legal provisions regulating the portrayal of suspects in the media that were identified are the following:

  • Requirements as to Standards and Practice applicable to News Bulletins and Current Affairs: persons accused of criminal matters should not be projected as if they are already found guilty and the principle of presumption of innocence must be fully respected. Trial by the media before any court judgement is delivered must be avoided at all times and care should be taken to avoid broadcasting repetitive footage that might prejudice the accused’s right to a fair trial.
  • Juvenile Court Act: newspaper reports, or sound or television broadcasts are prohibited from revealing the name, address or school, or include any particulars that may lead to the identification, of any child or young person under the age of 16 in criminal proceedings. The publication of any picture in any newspaper or on television as being or including a picture of any child or young person in any criminal proceedings, before the Juvenile Court and also the Criminal Court, is also prohibited.
  • Code of Journalistic Ethics: all reports of crimes and court proceedings should be strictly factual and a clear distinction should be made and explained between the facts and the expression of opinion. The naming of minors in court reporting is prohibited.

The findings of the media review of the reports and broadcasts from the selected television programmes, newspapers and online websites resulted a number of trends that may negatively influence the perception of suspects or accused persons as guilty. In this regard, a worrying trend was noted in relation to the use of images and film of the suspect on entering the Court building. Several incidences were recorded in which suspects were led by the Police through a pedestrian area and into the Court buildings through the front doors, as opposed to the back entrance. In this way reporters and journalists would publish or broadcast photographs or footage of suspects being led into Court handcuffed and escorted by a number of police officers. The negative portrayal of suspects or accused persons could potentially influence a person’s perception of their guilt and any future trial.

In one extreme example, a suspect was charged in Court the day after he was arrested, wearing a white forensic suit with his hands handcuffed behind his back. The suspect was made to walk in a busy pedestrian area, escorted by 3 police officers and enter the Court through the front doors as opposed to through the back entrance

Suspect being escorted to Court through a pedestrian street handcuffed and in white forensic suit

The research also highlighted that reporters and journalists from all media types consistently made explicit reference to the ethnicity and nationality of the alleged perpetrators. Frequently, the headlines would use nationality as the descriptor, for example “A Serb”, “Two Syrians” or “Russian with Maltese citizenship“, whilst no further descriptors are used for Maltese suspects, for example “double murder suspect still to be questioned”.

The use of visual representation which shows police officers, handcuffs and otherwise threatening representation of the defendants is also very common to newspapers, online portals and television broadcasters. However, it was also noted that only a few examples in which explicit reference to previous convictions were mentioned, whilst no explicit reference to guilt of the defendant were found in the sampled reports.

In the coming months an in-depth report on the legal framework regulating the use of restraining measures on suspects and accused persons, which also includes practical experiences of stakeholders in the field, will be published.

For more information contact our project contact point, Carla ([email protected]). You can also Subscribe to our News and Updates to be kept updated on this and all other projects and initiatives.

Measures of Restraints


Training materials on access to justice for migrant children

The FAIR project (Fostering Access to justice for Immigrant children’s Rights) was a two-year long project, which aimed at strengthening access to justice for migrant children in the EU. Migrant children in the EU face violations of their human rights every day. Lack of access to their families, to information, guardians and legal assistance, lack of access to housing or education, unlawful detention – are few examples of what the children suffer.

The results of the project are a number of practical training modules and learning tools to support lawyers in defending migrant children’s rights:

The materials include the following training modules:

0. Guiding principles and definitions,

I. Access to fair procedures including the right to be heard and to participate in proceedings,

II. Access to justice in detention,

III. Access to justice for economic, social and cultural rights,

IV. Access to justice in the protection of their right to private and family life,

V. Redress through international human rights bodies and mechanisms,

VI. Practical handbook for lawyers when representing a child.

These materials have been used in national trainings for lawyers organised by the ICJ-EI in Spain, Italy, Greece, Malta, Bulgaria, Ireland and Germany and include also practical training tools, such as case studies and warm-up questionnaires to guide possible future trainings.

Timeframe:

1 March 2016 – 1 March 2018

Project Partners:

International Commission of Jurists – European Institutions (Lead Partner), Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) (EL), aditus foundation (MT), Fundacion Raices (ES), Bundesfachverband Unbegleitete Minderjährige Flüchtlinge e.V. (B-UMF) (DE), Legal Clinic for Immigrant and Refugees (LCIR) (BG), Immigrant Council of Ireland (ICI) (IR), Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna (SSSA).

 

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Co-funded by the Rights, Equality and Citizenship (REC) Programme of the European Union.

Co-funded by the Rights, Equality and Citizenship (REC) Programme of the European Union and the Open Society Institute Budapest Foundation, and implemented in cooperation with the AIRE Center, Child Rights Connect, and the Associazione per gli Studi Giuridici sull’Immigrazione (ASGI) (Italy).