“While it is a fact that the current Leader of the Opposition is ashamed to say that he is Maltese, such a stance does not give him the prerogative to harm the country”. This was not ONE news. It was a Department of Information (DOI) statement issued by Minister Silvio Schembri.
It was peppered with deeply offensive and partisan venom. “It is clear that the intention of the PN’s statement is to cause harm. Its authors are being deliberately deceitful,” the press release continued. “The attack is yet another example of how the Opposition strives to harm the country continuously”.
The Commissioner for Standards had no option, when I lodged a complaint about the statement, but to conclude that Schembri breached three separate articles of the Code of Ethics for Ministers.
The Commissioner was explicit. Schembri’s statement contained partisan political statements that failed to respect the separation between the role of minister and party member.
Did the commissioner report the minister to the parliamentary standing committee? Absolutely not. George Hyzler concluded that “this case is not so serious”.
After meeting Hyzler, Schembri wrote an e-mail. “The ministry felt and still believes that the press release was the most appropriate means of communication”. In the imperial third person, Schembri entrenched his intransigence – I was right and am still right.
This was no apology. Schembri showed no contrition. He refuted the commissioner’s conclusions that the statement was partisan. He even failed to accept that at least some found his statement partisan. He reluctantly acknowledged that it ‘might’ have been considered overly partisan. And therefore he bore no culpability. The guilt was borne by those hypothetical individuals who ‘might’ have considered it partisan.
The commissioner desperately wanted to find a way out of the quandary. Even he couldn’t overlook such blatantly partisan comments. Especially since he had already warned ministers in a previous ruling that DOI statements should be non-partisan and factual. But he definitely couldn’t displease the minister.
He scrutinised Schembri’s email and found one sentence – “this comment might have been considered overly partisan in nature, in the future I shall make every effort to avoid such statements when these are issued through the DOI” – that he could misconstrue as an apology.
He ruled that the minister’s single sentence was “sufficient remedy in the circumstances”.
Conscious of how toothless and lame his conclusion was Hyzler meekly added a subtle warning: “I will, however, take a more serious view of similar future cases”. An embarrassed justification for his grovelling leniency towards the unrepentant.
If the commissioner believed finding Schembri in breach of ethics would temper the young minister’s arrogance, he was utterly mistaken. The same day the report was published, Schembri insolently mocked the commissioner. Should the DOI be used for propaganda, he was asked? No reply. Instead, he taunted Hyzler and those appalled by his vituperative statement.
Schembri claimed that Hyzler confided that “he does not see any story in this and in fact concluded it”. This concurs with Hyzler’s comments that “this case is not so serious”. Hyzler has not denied making the comments to the minister. In minimising Schembri’s abuse, Hyzler becomes an accomplice in dismantling democracy. He simply provides a front for false democratic credentials.
Schembri explained that the commissioner had to issue a conclusion once a complaint was lodged. He asserted that Hyzler concluded that “the way in which I issued the press release and my reply does not require any further action”. This was a flagrant lie.
The commissioner had specifically condemned the press release and gave the minister time to remedy the breach. It was Schembri’s weak promise that he would “make every effort” not to repeat his abuse that Hyzler felt “sufficient remedy”.
Schembri wasn’t done. He argued that since some want to close down political TV stations and he cannot now use DOI for his partisan vitriol, this is an exercise to gag politicians. Schembri is convinced he is entitled to use the organs of State, including the DOI, for his political ranting.
He brazenly accused the commissioner of the most undemocratic of intentions – “shutting the politician’s mouth so that he cannot even speak” – even as he is ruled to have breached the code of ethics and exploited the DOI.
What Hyzler decided “is not so serious” is a direct threat to democracy. Schembri’s abuse of the DOI is part of the Labour Party’s strategy to dominate through manipulation of information.
Labour has systematically built an informational autocracy. By hijacking the national broadcaster and controlling the DOI, Labour ministers coerce the public to believe the fiction of their competence and of their adversaries’ ineptitude and malevolence. By harassing and humiliating their critics and accusing them of treason and ‘negativity’ through official channels, Labour consolidates its power.
The intelligence chief of staff of Peruvian ex-president Alberto Fujimori paid millions in bribes to TV stations to skew their coverage. Here, Labour simply transferred its ONE journalists to run TVM and its news. ONE TV reaches only 24% of the population. TVM 48%. ONE TV audiences expect highly partisan content and unbalanced reporting, but TVM’s audience is caught off guard.
TVM deceitfully reported the minister’s abuse as “Commissioner Hyzler decides about complaint”. The public’s trust in the public broadcaster as balanced and factual is milked by Labour to indoctrinate a wider audience. The DOI is just another partisan weapon Labour wields.
Schembri claimed that in the press release there is no ‘factually incorrect’ information. No. Schembri’s assertions about the Opposition are just not facts. They are personal blinkered opinions. But for Schembri, his opinion is fact. The minister and his government cannot distinguish between party and state, opinion and fact. Nothing could be more serious for democracy. “L’etat c’est moi” – I am the state.
Silvio Schembri’s barefaced abuse elicits no outrage, anger or disgust. His DOI propaganda insults common sense. Sadly for Malta, it is only a minority who are insulted.