In 1783, one of the founding fathers of the US, George Washington, said “if freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
The two countries have very little in common, apart from a bipolar political system high on partisanship and delusions of grandeur. Yet, Washington’s words remain a stark warning.
The US is now led by a narcissist nativist who describes journalists as the “enemy of the people,” while Malta is led by a kleptocratic cabal that has repeatedly shown its contempt for freedom of speech.
The latest attack on freedom of speech came from what is meant to be one of the country’s highest institutions – Parliament.
The Speaker of the House, Anglu Farrugia, last Tuesday ordered The Shift News to make changes to a report after Labour MP Glenn Bedingfield complained that his “privilege was breached”.
Farrugia will perhaps be best remembered for describing Azerbaijan’s elections as “fair, democratic and transparent,” and for locking up a 19-year-old in a dark and dirty cell for 27 hours.
The year was 1984 and Farrugia was a police inspector. The girl was Daphne Caruana Galizia and she was arrested while protesting against the then Labour government. She was assassinated in October 2017, under this Labour government’s watch.
With Farrugia’s ruling, Parliament acted as victim, prosecutor, judge and jury all at the same time, without allowing The Shift News its right to a hearing, much less a fair one.
If Bedingfield felt misrepresented in any way, “he had every opportunity to avail himself of the remedies available to all citizens in the context of the media law”, The Shift News said in its response to the Speaker. That would have given this news portal the right to defend its position.
As the former editor of the Times of Malta Steve Mallia said on social media: “it is wrong for a member of a government that took the praiseworthy step of removing criminal libel from the statute books to seek sanction of a similar or even worse kind through the back door”.
The legality of the Speaker’s ruling is in question, even because of a previous judgment at the European Court of Human Rights relating to Malta.
In 1986, Charles Demicoli had written a satirical article entitled ‘Mix-Xena tax-Xandir’ in which he described Labour MPs as “clowns”. The MPs involved – Joe Debono Grech and Freddie Bartolo – took offence, like Bedingfield, and argued breach of privilege. Then Speaker of the House, Daniel Micallef, had ruled against Demicoli.
In that case, Demicoli had at least been called to the House on the matter. In the ruling against The Shift News, there was not even a minimal effort to observe that process.
The European Court of Human Rights found the Demicoli ruling to be in breach of the right to a fair hearing since Parliament was deciding about itself.
What it might say about the current ruling can only be imagined.
Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) UK Bureau Director Rebecca Vincent described Farrugia’s ruling as a “worrying move” to censor the independent press.
Parliament should be defending and safeguarding the fundamental rights of the citizens each member of the House was elected to serve. The fact that a report or comment made in the media with regard to something said by a member of the House cannot constitute a breach of privilege simply because of the person saying it happening to be of parliamentary status.
“If this were the case, MPs have rights that go beyond those of the very citizens they were elected to serve, which surely is not an acceptable concept in a democratic society,” The Shift News said in its reply to the Speaker.
For these reasons, The Shift News has informed the Speaker it will not change the content of the article that dealt with disinformation surrounding the 17 Black scandal.
The Shift News will not be led ‘like sheep to the slaughter’. And neither should anyone else. Our stand is in defence of everyone’s right to free speech and a fair hearing.