Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his chief of staff are still members of the Labour online groups posting comments inciting violence, The Shift News can confirm as the Office of the Prime Minister refuses to provide answers to the press.
On Saturday, the government refused to give a clear answer to questions by The Times of Malta on whether the Prime Minister and his chief of staff Keith Schembri have left any of the Labour online groups. Instead of answering the questions from the press, the OPM chose to attempt to discredit the investigation published by The Shift News on Monday.
The six-month investigation revealed secret and closed groups totalling some 60,000 members that are a breeding ground for hate speech and the targeting of citizens, journalists, political opponents and the family of assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. The Shift News gained access to the secret groups with the help of whistleblowers.
The groups administrators include a candidate for the Labour Party local council elections and two members of staff at the Justice Ministry, which is responsible for protecting freedom of expression. Posts in the group encourage people to ‘name and shame’ dissidents with the aim of silencing them, and they demonise and discredit political opponents and journalists, as well as the Archbishop.
Several top government officials are members of these groups. Apart from the Prime Minister and his Chief of Staff, others include – economy minister Chris Cardona, finance minister Edward Scicluna and MP Rosianne Cutajar.
The President left the groups two days after The Shift News published the investigation and following a speech in Parliament by opposition MP Jason Azzopardi in which he appealed to the President to condemn the groups. She did, in a statement the following day.
“The President has consistently and unreservedly condemned any type of bullying or threats of violence irrespective of their source and vociferously advocates that such abhorrent sentiments have no place in Maltese society,” the President said.
Speaking to The Times of Malta, an OPM spokesman said the Prime Minister condemned hate speech “wherever it is coming from” but he refused to give a clear answer on whether the Prime Minister had left these groups. Checks by The Shift News on Saturday confirmed the Prime Minister and his chief of staff were still members.
The OPM spokesman also told The Times of Malta that Facebook profiles could be added to groups without the user being made aware. This is false; particularly with secret or closed groups the user needs to be invited by someone who is both a member of the group and friends with the user and, in addition, an administrator needs to approve the invitation.
Moreover, the Facebook user would receive a notification that s/he has been added to the group. The profile continues to receive notifications of posts to the group. The user can choose not to receive notifications, but it means s/he is aware of the groups and their content. More so if, as many are, they are tagged in posts in the group.
The Shift News has also been critical of Facebook posts in PN online groups used to push support for the PN Leader and silence criticism. Yet, the Labour groups are closely linked to the government and run by staff paid by taxpayers working at the Justice Ministry. The scale and coordination of pro-Labour groups involving government officials poses a real danger to freedom of expression and the rule of law in Malta.