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Disinformation Watch #15: The government’s assault on civil society

A demonstration in Valletta calling for justice for assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Photo: Daniel Cilia.

In a society as divided as Malta’s, civil society organisations can work to redress conflicts without resorting to the force of the State or to violence.

In a society as divided as Malta’s, civil society is nascent, making it all the more worrying that the government is using disinformation to discredit activists and set them up as targets of hate. In doing this, the government is further dividing the country and driving up the risk of violence between its citizens.

The Shift News’ investigation into a network of secret pro-Muscat online groups revealed how Labour Party activists use the groups to discredit activists and set them up as targets of hate. The Facebook groups have targeted activists, the Archbishop, journalists and, particularly, assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and her family.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was a member of these groups for some seven years before the investigation forced him to turn his back on them. Yet senior members of the government continue to be members of these groups, and they continue to be administered by staff working at ministries as well as a candidate for the Labour Party on local council elections.

This week saw a coordinated attack on civil society by government-friendly writers in a clear sign that the government is tightening the screws, and intends to scale up and intensify its classist and majoritarian attack on civil society. These are just a few of the examples:

In Malta Today, disgraced former Nationalist minister Michael Falzon, who has yet to account for the €460,000 he accumulated in the 1980s and stashed away in a Swiss bank account, referred to activists as a “few people…who present themselves as a multitude of civil organisations…[who] have lost the plot.” Falzon went on, “this small band of reckless people believe they are socially superior”.

The same newspaper carried a piece by Raphael Vassallo, casting doubt on the motivations of activists and their credibility, calling them a “ tiny minority that has suffered a massive (quite possibly fatal) blow to its own credibility”. Vassallo wants corruption and crime to come with a “DOC certification” before speaking out.

In The Times of Malta, Martin Scicluna, who the government appointed to the National Commission for Further and Higher Education board, which granted a university licence to the so-called ‘American University of Malta’, that has been mired in controversy and scandal since its inception, wrote of “pseudo-political activists’ arrogant sense of entitlement.”

The task of journalists is to hold power to account, not to defend government corruption

They deplore the protests and vigils for Daphne Caruana Galizia taking place in Valletta. They fail to express the same concern for the corruption and murder that brought about the protests and vigils, and the calls for justice.

It is unfortunate that protests are taking place in Valletta and beyond; that major news outlets in the world are looking at the country with a critical eye; and that European institutions are bearing down on Malta as they are obliged to do. But shooting the messenger isn’t the answer. The cause is the corruption in government, and the death of a journalist in an EU member state.

The task of journalists is to hold power to account, not to defend government corruption. After major scandals being revealed on almost a weekly basis under the present administration, journalists who do not see them have to make a real effort to avoid them. It is certainly easier, and more convenient, to fill space attacking activists.

There is no denying the fact that corruption engulfs Malta. The country is one of the most thoroughly corrupt in the European Union, a fact that is of serious concern to our fellow member states.

The government’s ugly record is now widely known: Caruana Galizia’s family have had their fundamental human rights violated by the government, as decided by Malta’s constitutional court. More problems remain. There are now more unsolved crimes, more unprosecuted cases of high-level government corruption than in most other member states of the European Union.

These are the cold, hard facts of the matter.

Against this background, civil society activists appealed to the government and to State institutions for action. They refused to engage. Instead, they continue to be labelled as an insignificant minority, snobs, ndannati (damned), mdejqin (depressed).

Malta has for too long been festering in inaction, complicity, and cowardice.

Their banners are pulled down, their stickers vandalised. They are slandered and mobbed online, taunted in the street and harassed by police officers.

Passive onlookers ask: why all the protesting? Why create tension? The point is to force a government, and a society, to confront the country’s corruption crisis; to make the crisis impossible to ignore. Malta has for too long been festering in inaction, complicity, and cowardice.

Passive onlookers also ask, why not give the State and government time; why not wait?

The answer is that the government has to be pushed to act. Passive onlookers are mistaken if they believe that handicapped judicial inquiries, foreign law enforcement, and outwardly benign, inwardly cruel government ministers will act for the common good. There will be no action without pressure from people who stand up for human rights.

Corrupt officials like Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Keith Schembri will not give up their impunity voluntarily. They have now barricaded themselves behind an army of fanatical supporters, foaming at the mouth online and in person for violence against civil society; more amoral as a group than the individuals they defend.

Waiting for action from magistrates who can’t prosecute, means “never”.

Remember that there is nothing new about civic activism. We see it in Trump and Brexit protests, we see it in women’s marches around the world. We saw it with Occupy Wall Street, and with Martin Luther King. In our own country, we saw it throughout the 1980s.

Remember also how cruel and corrupt States can be – Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Russia’s Vladimir Putin operate within the parameters of their laws, while they suppress, jail and torture activists. They shut down NGOs and newspapers.

The government continues to say that civil society and journalists are harming Malta, condemning its citizens for its own crime and corruption. The alternative is to subscribe to its cruel deceit

Passive onlookers who are more devoted to their jobs, houses and inward lives than to human rights, democracy and justice cannot be excluded from the crisis.

Going with the flow to ensure your wealth and survival makes you a barrier to justice. And history teaches us that it is only a matter of time until the abuses you ignore affect you too.

It’s no longer enough to say, “I agree the government is corrupt, and its behaviour shocking.” This is a tacit, sly acceptance of injustice.

The government continues to say that civil society and journalists are harming Malta, condemning its citizens for its own crime and corruption. The alternative is to subscribe to its cruel deceit.

Civil society and journalists aren’t going away. If the government continues to drive a wedge between concerned citizens, passive ones and its fanatical supporters it will inevitably set the scene for more violence.

Maltese democracy cannot last with an electorate that is part enslaved to corruption and part refusing to accept it at the cost of their fundamental rights.

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Daphne Caruana Galizia

Daphne Caruana Galizia remembered on her birthday