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Another paper tiger

Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia
Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia. Photo: DOI / Clodagh Farrugia O'Neill.

This government has a strong record of creating paper tigers — entities that are powerful on paper but have no teeth when it comes to enforcement.

This “new” Hate Crimes & Speech Unit has already proven itself to be yet another example.

The island was shocked by a barrage of racist hate on social media that called for open violence against migrants. Such public posts clearly constitute hate crimes, and yet even as he was unveiling the unit’s shiny new sign, Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia confirmed that it “will not be going through every comment on social media on a witch-hunt and flood our courts”.

The Minister must have set a speed record with that speech. Not so many organisations manage to fail their mandate while being inaugurated.

Let’s take a look at hate speech: what it is, and what it means. And then we’ll give Minister Farrugia a to-do list so he can get this new Hate Crimes & Speech Unit off to a good start.

The Council of Europe defines hate speech as “forms of expressions which spread, incite, promote or justify hatred, violence and discrimination against a person or group of persons”.

The Maltese Criminal Code also includes specific provisions regarding hate speech. Article 82A(1) specifically punishes anyone who “uses any threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or displays any written or printed material which is threatening, abusive or insulting, … with intent thereby to stir up violence or racial or religious hatred against another person or group on the grounds of gender, identity, sexual orientation, race, colour, language, ethnic origin, religion or belief or political or other opinion, or whereby such violence or racial or religious hatred is likely, having regard to all the circumstances, to be stirred up”.

That’s a rather longwinded mouthful. But the meaning is very clear. It’s a crime to stir up racial hatred against migrants, both online and in print. It’s also a crime to call for activists who disagree with the government to be harassed, intimidated or assaulted.

Unfortunately, the government doesn’t seem to be doing much to rein such behaviour in, let alone prosecute it. You could even argue it’s encouraging it to the point of setting journalists on each other, although that’s largely successful with only one particular and well-fed lapdog.

In its 2018 monitoring report on Malta, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) noted that “the internet and in particular social media in Malta are rife with offensive content”. 

Much of it seems coming from Minister Farrugia’s colleagues.

Last year we saw Justice Minister Owen Bonnici insist that, no matter what his colleagues in Leeuwarden Friesland thought, former Valletta 2018 Head Jason Micallef’s comments about assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia were not hate speech but “freedom of expression”.

We heard former President Marie Louise Coleiro Preca condemning online hate, saying, “Social media should stand for a stronger democracy, and not to foment hatred” while also having been a member of online Labour Party hate groups.

And we heard Joseph Muscat condemning racial hatred against migrants just months after he said in a televised debate that he would like to see foreigners picking up rubbish and doing manual labour out in the sun.

And now we have this big public relations campaign to launch a Hate Crimes Unit that was already announced last year.

The Unit was supposed to have started operating from September. They finally inaugurated the location — whatever that means — on 24 October. But despite whipping the cloth off a shiny new sign, the government is still searching for “various professionals, including psychologists” to staff the thing.

Yes, that’s right. No one seems to work there. Why rush to open the doors on a long-overdue unit which doesn’t even have any staff?

Does Minister Farrugia hope a sign outside an empty room will give the impression that he’s actually fulfilling his responsibilities, or doing something about the shocking wave of hate speech that was spewed across Maltese Facebook pages just a few days earlier, including calls for migrants to be shot, burned or gassed “Hitler-style”?

While the paper powers of entities like the FIAU and this new Hate Crimes & Speech Unit might once have fooled international organisations that monitor rule of law violations in Malta, it clearly isn’t fooling anyone anymore.

Pieter Omtzigt’s scathing Council of Europe report punctured any illusion of independence on the part of such entities. Like the other compromised components of this government, they all seem to answer to the Prime Minister. And when it comes to taking action against his supporters or his inner circle, they can be relied on to do nothing at all.

Need some guidance on where to begin?

I humbly suggest to Minister Farrugia that he start by investigating the closed Labour hate groups exposed by The Shift. You know, the ones that vilified Caruana Galizia while she was alive in front of their own eyes and they never said a word. Just like they did when their members celebrated her brutal murder in those once-secret online groups.

The same groups where members called for civil society activist Tina Urso to be stalked and assaulted. The same groups that still include senior members of government among their members.

Being really fast at making new signs isn’t enough. You actually have to enforce the laws, too.

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