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Disinformation Watch #3: How the government manufactured Mark Montebello story to discredit Archbishop

Archbishop Charles Scicluna

Mark Montebello, a Dominican friar who unlike other clerics enjoys the support of Labour activists and government officials, criticised the way the Church in Malta was discussing the Protection of Embryos Act, describing its position as “retrograde, irrational, intolerant, intransigent and insensitive” in The Times of Malta on 25 April.

There was no word of Montebello’s column until 20 May when the Labour-affiliated General Workers’ Union’s weekly newspaper It-Torċa ran an editorial claiming Montebello was threatened with being defrocked if he continued criticising the Church.

In place of Montebello’s weekly column, which he’s been writing for the Maltese-language newspaper since 1993, It-Torċa’s editor ran ‘ĊENSURAT (censored) over a blank space.

It-Torċa’s editorial did not include comments from the Maltese Dominican Province, the Order to which Montebello promised obedience, and neither did it include comments from the Archdiocese of Malta, which demands loyalty to Church teaching.

Despite the unverified It-Torċa editorial, government head of communications Kurt Farrugia tweeted early on Sunday morning that “[t]he Church censors one of its most progressive thinkers”, adding ‘Freedom of speech in #Malta seems a privilege only afforded to conservatives. Outrageous”.

Farrugia’s tweet linked to Labour Party-owned One News’ coverage of the unverified It-Torċa editorial.

kurt farrugia church

Justice Minister Owen Bonnici tweeted a link to the same One News coverage, saying “[c]ensorship hurts. Always. It’s bad. This is wrong”.

This is the same Justice Minister who was involved in discussions with Henley & Partners to proceed with a financially-crippling lawsuit against Daphne Caruana Galizia who was assassinated on 16 October.

It is the same Justice Minister who shot down legal protections for Maltese journalists against such SLAPP lawsuits designed to silence them.

Within minutes of It-Torċa’s editorial being published, social media was set alight by Labour trolls and government officials manufacturing outrage against Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Fr Joe Borg, both of whom have spoken out against government corruption and online trolls peddling hate.

The Shift News investigated Labour’s online hate groups, which count senior government officials like the Prime Minister and Labour activists as administrators and members, on and around 20 May, finding:

  • Hate-baiting of group members where pictures of the Archbishop and Borg are shared, inviting descriptions of them as pig shit (“id-demel tal-majjali”), buckets of sperm (“zewg bottijiet tal-liba!!”), trash (“zibel”), clown (“buffu”), satan (“satana”), a jar of expired Bovril (“ja bott Bovril skadut”), evil nationalist (“nazzjonalist ahdar”), a sick old woman’s fart (“bassa ta mara xiha marida”), filth (“hmieg”/”hmiec” sic), and various comparisons of them with paedophiles.
  • Calls for the Archbishop to burn in hell, to go fuck himself (“Ahjar all oxxkemandu” [sic]; “vafanculo” [sic]), to go back to where he was born which is Toronto (“erga mur lura minn fejn twelidt”), and for people to throw rubbish at him.
  • Countless memes depicting the Archbishop as a jar of Bovril, a clown, a gorilla, and a paedophile.
  • One meme depicted a surgical-gloved hand lowering a miniature Archbishop into a frozen canister with tweezers, with text that was a play on words on embryo freezing (“l-ewwel imbruljun iffrizat f’Malta”).

Outside Labour’s secret and closed hate groups, the usual pro-Muscat trolls strove for the free speech angle. Neville Gafa, who works at the Office of the Prime Minister, pushed a #JeSuisMark hashtag similar to the #JeSuisCharlie (following the Charlie Hebdo attacks) and #JeSuisDaphne (following Caruana Galizia’s assassination) hashtags.

labour hate groups archbishop

Labour-associated troll ‘Christian Thorn’ provided a Facebook frame for users to apply to their profile photo, headed with “Je suis Mark Montebello” and as a footer “#mystorymydignity”.

There were repeated calls for “solidarity” with Montebello, calls of “We stand with Mark”, as well as calls of “shame on you!” directed at the Archbishop.

Media outlets including MaltaToday and LovinMalta also repeated It-Torċa’s claims, with Farrugia retweeting that coverage which lent ‘legitimacy’ to the fabrication.

The Archdiocese of Malta clarified its position immediately, saying “the Archbishop did not censure Fr Mark Montebello and that the Curia is not informed about what has been reported in It-Torca with regards to Fr Mark”.

Despite the Archdiocese of Malta’s statement and early update to L-Orizzont, and despite the Archbishop mediating between Montebello and his provincial to allow the Dominican friar to express his views, Labour activists continued to manufacture the Montebello story.

Consultant to the Prime Minister Tony Zarb shared a post in one Labour hate group on 30 May describing Borg’s defence of the Archbishop (“Ch. Guda”) as “vomiting out evil and hatred against the Prime Minister, the Labour government” and “Labourites”. Zarb also referred to the Church’s radio station, Radju tal-Knisja (RTK), as “Radio Tal Kattivi” (Radio of the Cruel).

As government officials and Labour activists manufactured the Montebello story, Manuel Delia’s blog was being subjected to heavy and sustained denial-of-service attacks.

The same week saw a coordinated and sustained troll campaign on Facebook to report Ranier Fasdni’s Times of Malta column on the corruption of tourism minister Konrad Mizzi and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Keith Schembri as spam, banning it from the social media platform.

Montebello’s real story is of a Dominican friar being disciplined by his religious Order (Orders act independently of the Archdiocese of Malta). It is the State that has the obligation to guarantee freedom of expression.

Montebello chose to break his silence at the unveiling of a moment dedicated to former prime minister Dom Mintoff, praising his efforts to fight poverty and to provide free public education. “The oppressors used poverty and ignorance as tools to suppress the public,” he said.

Montebello made no mention of the oppression and human rights abuses with which Mintoff’s later years in government were associated. In that sense, when Joseph Muscat followed with “Malta is currently living Mintoff’s dream,” those who remember Mintoff’s rule may have had a different understanding to what Muscat intended.

The digital harassment campaign by the Labour Party, carried out using government resources, continues to intensify. There has been no sign of its abatement since The Shift News exposed the secret groups with some 60,000 members that have been peddling hate and glorifying Muscat for the last seven years. The hate campaign just gets uglier and new targets continue to be added that include citizens, journalists, dissidents, politicians from the opposition and non-government leaders like the Archbishop.

The Shift News has shown how they are used to manufacture news cycles based on lies and half-truths with the aim of discrediting those critical of the government and fanning the flames of hatred that lead to posts inciting violence against their targets. The Prime Minister, MPs Labour MPs and senior government officials remain members of these groups. The President left the groups, condemning them, two days after The Shift News published its investigation.

This is the third episode in The Shift News Disinformation Watch, covering Labour’s campaign for the disappearance of objective truth.

READ MORE: The Shift News Disinformation Watch

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