In a country so finely ruled under the Rule of Law that even cases against state organisations are tolerated (I quote Mr Speaker’s faithful legal beagle here, who let slip his sublime take on democratic governance while arguing a case on behalf of no less an august institution as the FIAU) it is perhaps a good notion to cast a critical eye over one of our most important freedoms, that of expression.
Back in 1979, my doctoral thesis used “Quis custodiet custodes ipsos” to decorate the front end. My citing the Fourth Estate as one of the pillars of our democracy, though not one enshrined in the Constitution (it isn’t, even yet) years before that when I managed to scrape through first year law, is probably the reason I got to be a lawyer.
So I have, I suppose, more than a passing interest in the way ideas are given air and – more importantly – in how bright inquisitive lights are shone on the scurrilous doings of our rulers.
The thing about fundamental human rights is that they tend to be regarded with something of a fundamentalist mind-set, with absolute strength being attributed to them in black and white terms that brook no respect for nuance.
The same sort of mind-set, in an entirely different context, can be seen if you take a look at the responses to Judge Emeritus (and he does deserve that descriptor, unlike some others, who are merely ex-Judges or ex-whatevers) Vanni Bonello’s recent article on the criminal law aspects of abortion. Nowhere did Bonello say he was in favour oF, or against, abortion, he explicitly restricted himself to discussing an aspect of criminal law in its context.
Notwithstanding, the fundamentalists on both sides of the argument rained comment and reaction down on him, proving the old one about being sure that you’re doing it right if you piss off everyone in sight.
But back to Freedom of Expression, a freedom held very in the esteem of all right thinking folk, though perhaps not so much by our guv’nors, who done bugger all except pay scant lip-service to it, even 50 months after the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Yes, I mean you, Robert Abela, Owen Bonnici, Edward Zammit Lewis and the rest of you. You pretend to value freedom of expression, nay you boast about strengthening it, but you’re about as sincere about this as Boris Johnson about Brexit or Priti Patel on immigration.
The thing about Freedom of Expression, though, is that it isn’t absolute. You might raise an eyebrow at this, coming from me, proud as I am to have played a bit-part in protecting it, in, inter alia, Vassallo v Delia. The Court found that Raphael Vassallo wasn’t libelled by Manwel Delia when the former felt that the latter ranked him with the Mafia – read the judgement for a fuller understanding of the case, it bears the time.
For the sake of accuracy, the judgement has been appealed.
But no, you’re not free to say what you like, when you like, in all circumstances, and the point of this piece, with apologies for taking so long to get there, is to explain why.
I shall take as my research subject a specimen that inhabits the less widely read areas of social media. I know, it’s a filthy job but someone has to do it, though I’ll try to limit to the extent possible the oxygen that the specimen will receive as a result of this examination.
The specimen concerned is one Simon Mercieca, who styles himself on his Twitter account as ‘Historian University of Malta’. The extent to which the academic body relishes having him as one of its elements is not pertinent to this piece.
Mercieca, as is his right, expresses himself on a range of subjects, may conveniently be classified as “Anti-vax and anti-any mainstream measureS to combat COVID-19”, “Anti-Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation”, “Mildly anti-PN (or pro-Adrian Delia)”, “Anti-Repubblika” and “Pro Y0rgen Fenech”.
Oh, and “Pro Colonel (Demeritus) Dalli” – what price dem apples now, Mercieca?
He expresses himself on other subjects from time to time, but generally speaking, his energies are directed to these areas. For the record, I use him merely as a convenient purveyor of views that lend themselves to a discussion on the freedom to express them, not as someone whose views should be given an iota of value.
Just to illustrate where he’s coming from, he quotes GB News as an authority for some ludicrous position or other on COVID. Other equally ridiculous sources, including the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Facebook, are cited from time to time, which is illustrative, if nothing else, of the research methods this historian sees as befitting a Historian of the University of Malta.
So, where are the limits on Mercieca’s freedom of expression: I put the question to you, and will answer it, in order to illustrate the thinking behind my earlier crack that “The thing about Freedom of Expression, though, is that it isn’t absolute”.
There is an ultimate limit, the one that would, if social media had a shred of decency about it (which it doesn’t) result in his being banned from shooting his virtual mouth off.
To grasp this one, imagine someone shouting “Bomb, bomb” in a crowded (remember them?) cinema. To my mind, if you do that, you’re acting with irresponsibility of criminal proportions. Saying that Omicron isn’t deadly and actually helps create immunisation is not a million miles from that, and yet Mercieca says it.
Moving along the scale of where limits on this person’s freedom of expression kick in, consider the manner of his reminding people that Matthew Caruana Galizia left the car his mother was using outside the gate just before the assassination.
Here Mercieca is echoing and amplifying the vicious miscreant trolls who for reasons known only to themselves (and their directors) think that this needs to be mentioned from time to time.
Quite apart from the blindingly obvious fact that the information is as worthless as the people using it, anyone with a shred of decency would not go there. He would, in fact, self-limit his freedom of expression by adhering to appropriate standards of humanity.
Mercieca chooses not to.
From what I would call imperative self-censorship (imperative, that is, if you want to be taken as a valid human being) I move further along the scale to what you can call “If I were he, I wouldn’t say that but …”
Here we come across assorted apologia for Yorgen Fenech (who denies all involvement and who remains innocent until proven guilty) and various posts seeking to give strength to the arguments his briefs put up for him in every manner available to them.
Given that Mercieca is a) not legally trained and b) writing in the cess-pool of social media and his own blog, one would have thought that he would – as an academic whose function is to enlighten his students rather than confuse or mislead them – eschew the temptation to talk out of his arse.
He chooses not to.
Moving on, we come to the point where right-thinking folk would ask, in the tone to which we’ve become used, “Seriously? And this guy is a University lecturer?”
Again, Mercieca chooses to risk these questions being answered in a way that would not give him much personal satisfaction.
And then we come to the area where – quite frankly – he’s as free as a bird to say what he likes, when he likes and how he likes: where he pours scorn and vituperation on people like me, on politicians and on anyone he doesn’t like or who doesn’t agree with him.
As long as he doesn’t downright lie about anyone or become a danger to them by stoking the trolls’ fires (in which case, see above about shouting “Bomb, bomb”) he can write pretty much what he likes, and I’ve no doubt he will about me when he reads this (and if he grasps it).
After all, “‘Freedom of expression’ also means the freedom to talk out of your ass” to quote Mr Raphael Vassallo, to whom passing reference has been made earlier.