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Hate speech and double standards

Why was no action taken when The Shift News published disturbing findings of government-sanctioned hate groups?

The horrific hit-and-run of PC Schembri triggered widespread outrage from the public, and received thorough, in-depth coverage from all newspapers. Imagine how the outrage escalated when crass remarks were passed subsequently, allegedly inciting violence against the police.

One of the principal reasons laws are enacted and enforced is to keep the peace. On Friday, the courts decided that the charges brought against the suspects were sufficiently serious to deny them bail. In other words, inciting violence is frowned upon (to say the least).

Why, then, was no action taken when The Shift News published their disturbing findings of government-sanctioned hate groups? The current court case revolves around one Facebook post with a couple of comments.

Yet the Shift investigation unearthed fora profusely littered with messages of express violence and abuse not only against politicians and activists, but also against assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, even posthumously.

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But despite the murder fantasies, the celebration of Daphne’s murder, the homophobia, and the frequent incitement to violence against civil society activists, not a single charge was brought against any of the administrators or authors of the posts.

One of the administrators is a Labour candidate for local council elections. At least two other administrators work at the Justice Ministry, which is tasked with protecting freedom of expression. Hate speech does the precise opposite; it has a chilling effect on freedom of expression and no new Media Bill is going to make up for it.

This is not a minor phenomenon – the groups total some 60,000 members. And it is not trivial – the President distanced herself from it, which is unsurprising considering how gruesome and shocking some posts are. Yet Labour officials continue to spread propaganda and Labour politicians advertise their campaigns in the same groups.

For a party with a consistent (albeit insubstantial) cry for unity, the lack of condemnation is leaving a bitter taste, especially for the targets of Labour’s social media structure. But the rule of law is not based around the application of laws, not politicians’ reactions to events.

Inciting violence is a crime listed under article 70 of the Criminal Code. But article 82A, inciting violence on inter alia political grounds, carries a much harsher sentence. Especially now, no group would be more empathetic towards the victims of a hate regime than the police. According to the Constitution, the buck stops with police commissioner Lawrence Cutajar. It bestows on him the duty to enforce the observance of all laws.

The outrage sparked has dominated the news cycles and warranted an immediate reaction by the police. The events have, even before conviction, sent a clear message: it is not okay to incite violence against the police. So once there has been an insidious indifference to reports of hate speech, is it therefore okay to attack politicians and dissidents?

An argument could be made to distinguish the two cases. The European Court of Human Rights categorises discrete types of commentary into a hierarchy, each deserving different degrees of protection. When delivering political commentary, the ECtHR would grant greater protection for that speech.

But there is a limit. Before the Brexit vote, UK MP Jo Cox was fatally stabbed. The incentive was political, not personal, purely based on Cox’s work for immigrants. This means that in a world of increasingly polarised factions, political violence is as real and imminent as it is toward the police.

In Malta, there are already concrete manifestations of an inflating animosity against opposition members, journalists and civil society. The darkest example is the fate of Caruana Galizia, whose murder was preceded by a superabundance of criminal incitements to violence.

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Furthermore, the context renders the Labour hate groups more ominous: whereas the trio who were denied bail today made their comments on the general Facebook feed, the hate speech against civil society and opposition MPs is nurtured in specialised channels. Such groups appear to be designed to accommodate and encourage such incitement to be voiced.

Based on this, if the courts were anxious to protect a police force under threat, there should be no reason why they would not do the same for civil society. But it is the Commissioner who is responsible for bringing Labour’s hate groups to court in the first place.

There seems to be no valid reason why the Commissioner should remain indifferent to this case: it is blatantly incompatible with article 82A of the Criminal Code. Without the proper enforcement of the law, it is mostly worthless. Worse still, the imbalanced application of the law has serious implications on the rule of law.

It rests with the Police Commissioner: what is he waiting for to prosecute prima facie offences? It has been obvious for a while that the Commissioner, accountable to the Prime Minister, will not act. But doing nothing might make him liable for the negligence of his duties.

Had Joseph Muscat truly valued unity above partisanship, the potentially criminal Labour channels would not have involved government representatives and officials. The situation now is that Malta is ruled by the Labour Party before it is ruled by the Government of Malta – if they could have it their way, Auberge de Castille would fly a flag of the torċa.

With the Commissioner reporting to the Prime Minister and consulting with government MPs present in the same Labour channels, a situation may have been created where civil society will just have to sit back and watch trolls and hate groups get away with criminal offences. This is a clear discriminatory application of the law. It is contrary to the Constitution; but if it has already been breached with impunity, why stop now?

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