Daphne Caruana Galizia had been a target of hate for years before her assassination, as documented in evidence that emerged in the investigation by The Shift into the Labour Party’s secret online groups – a pattern that is increasingly being deployed by governments around the globe leading to the undermining of democracy.
A debate at the International Journalism Festival on Thursday focused on online campaigns targeting journalists, using trolls deployed by the State in an attempt to intimidate and silence reporting on critical issues of public interest.
The panel entitled ‘When a state trolls: strategies for responding to online harassment against journalists’, was moderated by Courtney Radsch from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Caroline Muscat, co-founder of The Shift, addressed the involvement of Maltese government members and employees in the coordinated trolling and harassment of journalists and activists.
Also taking part was Indian investigative journalist Rana Ayyub, and editor-in-chief of independent Turkish media platform Yavuz Baydar.
Rasdch opened with an explanation of what constitutes trolling, pointing out that it can be a paid apparatus of the State, a part of public discourse, or a combination of both. She explained that its purpose was to undermine and discredit journalists as well as to intimidate them into silence.
She also spoke of the gender dimension in trolling, noting that female journalists were often subjected to threats of violence, rape and sexual assault, as well as having doctored images and memes circulated.
Referring to the case of Caruana Galizia, she drew attention to the fact that online trolling has very serious physical implications in the real world and that she had experienced significant harassment by the Party in government before she was murdered. These online groups even celebrated her death.
Muscat spoke about The Shift News’ investigation uncovering a total of six secret and closed Facebook groups totalling some 60,000 members run by the Labour Party in Malta and built over seven years.
She explained how these groups can whip up a cycle of hate within a few hours, as they did with Tina Urso after she organised a protest in London when the Prime Minister attended a Henley & Partners event in London.
Explaining that around 90% of the media in Malta is owned or linked to political parties, Muscat said that the silencing of Caruana Galizia had a huge impact, serving to eliminate one of the main critical voices in the country.
The audience heard how these groups’ members included the Prime Minister, the President, members of parliament, electoral candidates, and government employees. Muscat described the attacks coordinated and launched from these groups as “ruthless, persistent, and designed to wear you down”.
Muscat explained how these groups are managed by government employees. “What we saw was how well these groups could whip up a cycle of hate within hours”. Muscat was herself a target, with a government employee saying she needed “more bombs”.
She concluded by saying that the Prime Minister had to be confronted several times in parliament before he reluctantly left the groups, never admitting their real function. Yet, the online groups remain, with members of the government who remain active, meaning that nothing much has changed.
The CPJ moderator stated that Malta was one of the few cases where journalists have been able to definitively prove the link between the government and trolling. She then called on representatives of the European Union in the audience to take note of what was happening in Malta, an EU country, to ensure that core principles such as freedom of expression were sustained.
Indian investigative journalist Rana Ayyub has been the recent target of online hate campaigns, facing rape threats, after her reporting on extra judicial killings by the State. She authored an international bestseller entitled ‘Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up’, an undercover investigation which exposes the complicity of two strongmen in India, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.
Yavuz Baydar, is the Editor-in-Chief of Ahval, a trilingual independent online news site on Turkey, has lived in self-imposed exile since the July 2016 coup attempt. He spoke of the development of astro-turfing in Turkey, where online groups work in a co-ordinated fashion to silence critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
You can follow the full debate in the video below: