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Hatred parading as free expression

Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

With revelations into the reality of many Labour support groups, it becomes clearer that the right to freedom of expression is a concept that is misused and abused.

An investigation published by the Shift News on Monday exposed six of the biggest pro-Muscat Facebook groups regularly post threatening and insulting content, attacking dissenting opinions as well as critical journalists.

The groups’ members included top members of the government, including the Prime Minister and his closest aides. The groups foster environments in which hate speech, attacks and insults are supported and even nurtured.

Social media, now more than ever, allows citizens to live in wilful ignorance. They are able to surround themselves only with people who carry the same ideas as themselves – without any need to ever challenge those thoughts. It has become an echo chamber where hate speech can thrive at seemingly no cost to their reputation.

While these groups allow hate speech, which is classified as criminal activity, to go unpunished the abusive commentary they brew does not go without greater consequences.  The consequences will not affect them but rather the understanding of freedom of expression and its importance in a democracy. It also affects the target of their hate, or there would be no point.

These groups perpetuate the abuse of freedom of expression – in which abusive comments are paraded as freedom of speech while simultaneously denying the media the ability to defend analytical commentary. Victims are also unable to address the lies manufactured to destroy their credibility.

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These groups are filled with posts attacking journalists and Daphne Caruana Galizia and her family. If the view is not supportive of the government or critical of groups outside of it, there is no respect for the concept of freedom of expression.

Observing the new media and defamation law it is clear freedom of expression is a selectively applied term. While the Bill was promoted by the government on social media as providing unprecedented “press freedom”, PEN International says it remains concerned that it still imposes legislative restrictions on freedom of expression.

If the government truly believed in providing press freedom, they would not have shot down the anti-SLAPP amendment presented by the Opposition. The proposed amendments were intended to prevent Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation (SLAPPs), that is legal action used to censor and intimidate by way of crippling legal fees.

Clearly, the government remains deeply hypocritical when it comes to supporting freedom of speech.

Hate speech of this kind perpetuates the idea that people are invited to say anything they want, regardless of whether it is true and without consideration for the damage caused.

The argument put forward by the likes of Labour MP and PM aide Glenn Bedingfield – that his offensive writing and singling out of dissidents is his right and stopping him would be denying him his freedom of expression – is total nonsense.

When citizens criticise the government it is called democracy. When the government attacks its citizens it is called oppression.

While freedom of speech should extend to issues that are in the public interest, it does not extend to the affirmation of hate speech. Quite the contrary, it demeans the very meaning of the concept.

A sense of reliability and belief in verification is lost when the government can participate in such commentary and still attempt to present an image of maintaining a “positive attitude.” The Shift News investigation has shown that Joseph Muscat’s claim to represent a positive politics that does away with tribalism is a cover for a relentlessly violent and abusive campaign.

It is no longer possible to tell what is true from what is false. It is the government’s reliance on spin, lies, aggression and intimidation propagated through these groups and massive advertising budgets using taxpayer money that is to blame.

The Labour Party has built and nurtured these groups for years and maintained them and extended them during its time in government. These groups are not separate from the Party, but an integral part of its machinery. Under Labour, there is no distinction between government and Party. This is nothing short of State-sponsored suppression of freedom of speech.

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