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Disinformation Watch #23: On dirty political tricks that make headlines

David Casa + Daphne Caruana Galizia
PN MEP David Casa with activists at the protest memorial in Valletta.

The government undermines civil society by directly suppressing freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest  – now also by copying the activism of civil society, and directing that fake activism against government critics. Their latest target is PN MEP David Casa, one of most effective government critics who has supported the citizens’ campaign for truth and justice from the start.

Just three days after thousands of people gathered in front of the protest memorial for justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia on the first anniversary of her assassination, and after the world’s leading free expression and free press organisations laid tributes there, justice minister Owen Bonnici dispatched the government’s cleaners to destroy the protest memorial.

This followed the government’s reassurances to the same organisations that it was fully committed to strengthening freedom of expression in Malta and also followed an official press release in which the government said it “joins the international” organisations in demanding justice for Caruana Galizia.Bonnici’s order to dismantle the protest site marks, at least, the 20th clearance since it was first organised. Last month, Bonnici ordered that the site is blocked off. Activists and concerned citizens have been laying flowers and candles in front of the barricades that Bonnici erected around the site.

Not content with suppressing citizens’ right to protest and assemble peacefully, the government is also suppressing their right to free expression.

When a banner  – asking why the Prime Minister’s chief of Staff Keith Schembri and Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi are not in prison, and why the Prime Minister’s wife is not under investigation, and why Caruana Galizia was killed after asking these questions – was put up on a private property in Valletta, the Planning Authority (PA) had the banner removed without notice. Another banner was put up a week later and was again removed by the PA – this time within a few hours.

It is now clear that the government is also attacking these same rights to peaceful protest and assembly and to free expression in another, more insidious way.

Last Sunday, Malta Today ran a story “exclusively” quoting a former disgruntled employee of PN Head of Delegation David Casa saying the MEP has a serious cocaine habit.

Last month, the same newspaper reported that Casa was abusing EU funds. Eager Labour MEP candidates were quick to report him to the European Parliament (EP), while other unknown operators leaked the information to the European press.

The premature excitement of attention-seeking MEP candidates was remarkably self-defeating particularly following the EP issuing a statement declaring that Casa was in fact fully compliant with EP rules.

This month, Malta Today pushed the line that Casa was abusing drugs.

Casa has been on the frontline of calls for justice for Caruana Galizia and has been consistently raising the alarm over Malta’s rule of law and corruption crisis. The story’s publication came two days before the anniversary of Caruana Galizia’s assassination around which Casa organised a series of speeches and events.

On the anniversary date itself, a number of banners appeared in Pieta and Msida, featuring Casa’s face, lines of cocaine, and the words “I spend €700 on cocaine every weekend” or “Follow the white line”.

The banners that appeared following the claims published by Malta Today mimic the banners put up by activists calling for justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia assassinated a year ago.

It is unlikely that the banners, which came two days after Malta Today’s editor Saviour Balzan ran the former aide’s story, are the work of a disgruntled former aide. Casa claimed they are the work of the Labour Party, and said the former aide was “weaponised” by the Labour Party in government.

The banners bear the mark of a coordinated campaign that precisely follows the pattern of other campaigns.

On the six-month anniversary of Caruana Galizia’s assassination, Balzan published an opinion piece in which he heavily criticised the professionalism and impartiality of the highly-respected Magistrate Anthony Vella, who was leading the magisterial inquiry into Caruana Galizia’s assassination before being made a judge in June – a decision criticised by international organisation Reporters Without Borders as well as MEPs as “a way of stalling and derailing the inquiry”.

Balzan’s criticism centred on the inquiry not having collected Caruana Galizia’s most recent laptop, a fact that emerged in the criminal proceedings in the Magistrates’ Courts.

On the same day that Balzan published his opinion piece, Labour MP Glenn Bedingfield, an aide and close personal friend to Muscat, published a blog post called “Oh my laptop” in which he suggested that Caruana Galizia’s laptop was not being handed over to the Malta police because her family want to obstruct justice.

All the while, the laptop was handed over to the German Federal Police due to source protection concerns in Malta, in full cooperation with Magistrate Vella. The Maltese authorities have, according to recent reports, not even made a request for the laptop or any data which it contains.

Despite no interest shown in the laptop by local authorities, the line that the family kept the laptop hidden to stall investigations continues to be pumped on every single online comments board available. There is no mention of the government’s efforts to obstruct justice.

In his blog post, Bedingfield asked, “[i]f they really want this case to be solved, they should come clean. Maybe we will start seeing some banners asking ‘Where is that laptop?”

Sure enough, a few hours later, such banners appeared in key locations around Malta. The banners read, “Why is someone hiding Daphne’s laptop?”

Neville Gafa, another of Muscat’s close personal friends and aides, who was reportedly embroiled in a Libyan visa scam (yet later released from accusations) and later reported to the Malta police for stalking Caruana Galizia a day before her assassination (and again released from such accusations), was one of the first people to upload a photo of one of the banners.

Gafa captioned his photo with “The situation is desperate”, which were Caruana Galizia’s last written words. It is in line with Valletta 2018 chairman Jason Micallef’s mocking of the late journalist’s words, leading to international calls for his dismissal and causing a diplomatic rift.

Yet another of Muscat’s aides, Josef Caruana, who pushes conspiracy theories suggesting that Caruana Galizia’s family killed her, also shared the photos on Facebook.

Labour Party-owned ONE News then uploaded the photos of the banners, featuring them in a write up that claimed Caruana Galizia’s laptop could contain important information that could lead investigators to her killers.

The pattern is clear: on key dates, Labour Party officials and MPs, in collaboration with pro-government media, launch coordinated smear campaigns against government critics.

Their banners show that they have copied civil society’s activism, but failed to absorb its message: human rights are inviolable and Malta needs change.

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