Raphael Vassallo headlined his weekly column with this title: “‘Freedom of expression’ also means the freedom to talk out of your ass”. Never has a more appropriate heading been chosen for the article that would follow it.
His main thrust is freedom of expression in Malta is a-ok and the moaners that complain it isn’t are, you’ve guessed it, talking out of their ass.
Sure they are.
Here are, in brief, the reasons why no one should measure freedom of expression by how tolerant the authorities are for their articles and editorial opinions supporting the government.
Thirteen reasons why if you renounce your right to speak out of your ass and instead use your mind and your heart to act independently of the favour of the government and the political parties, freedom of speech is truly threatened in Malta.
Firstly, libel laws in Malta are used tactically by politicians to silence journalists. There are dozens of examples of this but I’ll stick to a few fresh ones. Chris Cardona allowed his lawsuit against Daphne Caruana Galizia to fall through when confronted with the likelihood of evidence that, if heard, could prove he perjured himself; not to mention having had sex with a prostitute.
I would not be overly concerned with the freedom of speech of Opposition politicians like Simon Busuttil, Jason Azzopardi and Beppe Fenech Adami but Konrad Mizzi’s recent abandonment of his libel suits against them for fear of evidence that could prove them correct in their claim he is corrupt again shows that politicians are willing to start libel suits to achieve silence irrespective of the veracity of the claim they say has defamed them.
Needless to say, Konrad Mizzi’s abandoned lawsuits will in and of themselves have had the effect of silencing journalists from giving credibility to the claims he so dramatically said were lies about him. The effect was achieved even if he could not see his claim through in court.
Secondly, in any case, our defamation laws, even as reformed, and the bulk of the decisions taken by our courts in libel cases are contrary to European free speech culture and in their majority would be struck down in the European Court of Human Rights.
Except that as Giovanni Bonello recently and painfully pointed out, decisions by the European Court of Human Rights over-ruling our laws and our sentencing culture do not bring about changes in those laws and in that sentencing culture.
Therefore effectively to prove the point that our standards for defamation are a threat to our right to free speech, every case would have to be pursued all the way to Strasbourg: a prohibitively expensive and excessively long process over matters that by the end of the cycle would have long been forgotten.
That, in and of itself, is a systemic barrier to free expression.
Thirdly, though our laws are bad enough, some countries have worse ones and the government’s allies have resorted to libel tourism to silence journalists. Henley and Partners have threatened The Shift News and before them Daphne Caruana Galizia, with libel suits in the UK.
Pilatus Bank filed a $40 million lawsuit against Daphne Caruana Galizia in Arizona the defence against which would have ruined her, never mind the inconceivable outcome of the damages being awarded.
Libel tourism or SLAPP suits can be prevented and journalists can be protected through legislative design which the government refused to consider.
Fourthly, the risk of these proceedings in Malta and abroad, silence journalists from speaking their mind before they even consider doing so. It’s called the chilling effect that is only felt if unlike Raphael Vassallo one places oneself two steps away from the warm glow of the tagħnalkoll cult.
Fifthly, independent journalists who step on the toes of the political parties face an onslaught of organised keyboard warriors coordinated and resourced by the parties themselves. Of course, no one got anywhere near the years of daily lampooning, terrible threats, and virulent dehumanisation and demonisation that Daphne Caruana Galizia has experienced. But with time some of us are getting a taste of that.
Sixthly, quite apart from what they manage to achieve by hiding behind their trolls or little elves or keyboard warriors, parties consider critical journalists as legitimate live targets. Under the guise of journalism and news, they use their media to isolate, intimidate and discredit their critics making no difference whatsoever between holders of political office from their rival camp and independent journalists whose job it is to be inconvenient to them. They will wilfully twist facts and misrepresent them, not to mention chase them down public squares with their cameras which instead of tools of journalism and information, in their hands become weapons of political assault.
Seventhly, those cameras as weapons of political assault will be used on civilians as much as journalists in the exercise of their profession. People attending protests or in any way stepping out of the line determined by the powerful become legitimate targets of cameras held by
Eighthly, protest is crushed. Gone are the clumsy dates of beatings in a cell. In their place is the use of public resources in a constant battle of exhaustive attrition, wiping away visual images of protest within minutes of their erection. Any banner, billboard, poster — even candle and flower — left denoting a message of protest is removed near instantly. Billboard space in business for years is struck down the moment it is hired to carry messages of protest. Sundry administrative rules, particularly planning, which are otherwise habitually flouted, are cited and used as tools of censorship.
Ninthly, journalists are given access by Ministers according to how likely they are to challenge them with questions. Konrad Mizzi systematically holds press conferences restricted to so-called journalists in the employ of the government or his party. Joseph Muscat has refused every single request for an interview made to him by every international journalist since John Sweeney over a year ago. He systematically avoids open exchanges with the press and the ones he does not manage to avoid he trivialises with inconsequential responses like the classic “freedom of speech” response to the Law Commissioner branding him the most corrupt prime minister in history.
Tenthly, unlike any other democracy journalists here are not associated, unionised or professionally organised. The numbers within their ranks are flooded by employees of political parties ensuring that the interests of political parties and the government are served before any shared interests of the profession. The Istitut tal-Ġurnalisti Maltin is the product of that flood. Even outside the substantial numbers of salaried agents of political parties, the engagement of several self-described journalists as satellites of partisan interest ensures there is no professional solidarity that would strengthen the significance and influence of the independent press.
Eleventhly, some so-called journalists are happy to exchange their acquiescence with the political class, or at least a portion of it, in exchange for public expenditure. The government whether directly through advertising spend or indirectly through consultancy or public broadcasting contrasts, generates dependencies and loyalties that force compromises in press coverage of its affairs. Does the fact that Saviour Balzan is contracted for his weekly show on TVM effect in any way his enthusiasm for bashing critics of the government that employs him?
Twelfthly, whistle-blowers are systematically intimidated preventing sources or potential sources from telling journalists of what they know. Jonathan Ferris and Maria Efimova have been held up as examples of what would happen to anyone who might dare to reveal government wrong-doing to journalists. They face unlawful dismissal, effective exile, spurious prosecution on trumped-up charges, and that’s just what the government is willing to do overtly. Campaigns to discredit your credibility, ensure you are never employable and gaslighting to the point where committal to a mental institution becomes all but inevitable are all cards that have been played.
The chilling effect goes far beyond the cited examples. One must consider what anyone who knows more than Maria Efimova or Jonathan Ferris might think of letting anyone know they know too much.
Thirteenthly, and in spite of the fact that Raphael Vassallo considers this argument as unreasonable, a journalist has been killed. Raphael Vassallo says it is unfair to blame any public authority for Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination. After all, it’s not like Joseph Muscat pulled the trigger. If not pulling the trigger on a journalist is the standard to which he holds his prime minister accountable, Raphael Vassallo’s ass is in need of some
The State — and therefore by virtue of its stewardship of it, the government — is in duty bound to protect freedom of speech which at least requires it to protect the life of journalists. Not to recognise its failure in this duty when the death of a journalist outside its time has most definitely occurred doubles the failure of the State because not only has it failed in its duty when the assassination occurred, it has failed everyday since in recognising that it should be protecting others.
Of course, the government did worse than
The government’s complete unwillingness to determine the responsibility of the assassination, the half-hearted investigations, the lies about imminent arrests to deflect attention from the community of journalists outside our shores, the refusal on purely political grounds to consider some form of plea deal with the hired hands to turn state evidence, the retention in office of a Minister caught lying about his relationship with the alleged assassins before and after they killed their victim: all of these are a suppression of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s right to life itself. When a journalist is denied their right to life, the freedom of their speech is purely academic.
Finally, the government’s categoric refusal to allow for an independent inquiry into the circumstances around Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination, what the State could have and failed to do to prevent it, the quality of the investigations thereafter and what lessons might be learnt from that event is not merely a denial of her rights.
That refusal has the chilling effect of warning journalists meaning to go down the road that led Daphne Caruana Galizia to her untimely death that no one will protect them from the same end. There won’t even be the possible deterrent of those responsible being brought to justice that might in a way give journalists the confidence of exercising their profession freely.
Thirteen reasons why Raphel Vassallo should stop shitting on his own profession.