Keeping things in check #3

Prime Minister Robert Abela and his “best in the world” hyperbolic speech garnered most of the attention last week but there were other, equally noteworthy, disinformation nuggets that deserve a closer look together with some more recent gems.

Not the planters (again)!

Those ankle-biting activists are at it again. This time, it was Occupy Justice activists who placed protest placards inside Jason Micallef’s treasured planters located in front of Renzo Piano’s parliament building in Valletta.

It didn’t take the chairman of the Valletta Cultural Agency long to decry the “act of vandalism” on the planters and stated that he had ordered the placards to be removed and “thrown in a skip”. He added that he would be filing a police report against Occupy Justice and fellow activist group Repubblika, describing them, yet again, as “extremists”.

An analysis of Micallef’s tirades has already been published by The Shift but it is also worth reminding the executive chairman of One TV, and all those parroting his unimaginative rhetoric, that Malta’s First Hall of the Civil Court in its Constitutional Jurisdiction found former justice minister Owen Bonnici breached protesters’ right to freedom of expression when he repeatedly cleared the memorial to Daphne Caruana Galizia in front of the law courts.

Besides, given that anyone who is critical of the government has been repeatedly labelled a “traitor”, an “enemy of Malta” or an “extremist” by Micallef, could some charitable soul gift the man a thesaurus?

‘Vandals of public opinion’

Micallef’s words were then elevated to a whole new level by government whip Glenn Bedingfield. In his most recent parliamentary speech, which has surpassed all his others to date, coined a new term for those calling for justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia – “vandals of public opinion”.

In his speech, Bedingfield bounced (metaphorically speaking) from one thing to another, from reminiscing about Dom Mintoff’s achievements and claiming that the Nationalist Party connives with foreign powers against Malta, to making some very serious allegations about the family of Daphne Caruana Galizia. The underlying hyper-nationalistic tones of “foreign interference” and “national interest” were hard to miss.

It was the “vandals of public opinion” that took the biscuit. Bedingfield first referred to the Occupy Justice activists as “those vandals outside” then went on to add “and I’ll call them vandals because they vandalise monuments, vandalise state property and moreover vandalise public opinion and people’s minds”.

Astounding words that would make Vladimir Putin proud. This kind of rhetoric is straight out of the Kremlin’s disinformation playbook and one of its recurring themes that claim “Cultural Marxists” or progressives colonise the mind of people in the west through brainwashing.

Amplifying insidious narratives

When The Shift revealed that Joseph Muscat walked away with a handsome one-time payment, dubbed ‘terminal benefits’, amounting to €120,000, the former prime minister immediately responded via a Facebook post stating that there was nothing secretive about the lump sum he received and that he was “entitled to get what others got”.

Muscat’s version of events then made headlines the following day, in most mainstream newspapers, each one amplifying and lending legitimacy to his misleading statements.

However, had anyone bothered to look past what Muscat was instructing them to see, it would have become evident that Muscat was conveniently omitting some pertinent details, notably that Muscat had changed the policy of terminal benefits for those occupying Cabinet positions just before his departure in 2019.

This resulted in a more substantial golden handshake for himself and possibly double the remuneration he would have been entitled to under the original arrangements.

Where to draw the line?

And while we’re on the subject of headlines – Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis, still clinging to his proposed constitutional amendments like a child clings to their comforter, published an opinion piece in the Times of Malta entitled ‘The Venice Commission ruled in our favour’. He was quickly taken to task by readers and not least by the same four legal experts who patiently and persistently reply to the Minister’s many “opinions” on his proposed constitutional reform.

At this point, we know that Zammit Lewis is not going to admit his Venice Commission gamble backfired, so as readers and consumers of information, we need to be asking ourselves another question: at what point was this “opinion”, with that specific headline, considered acceptable for publication?

Surely, this particular text went well beyond the boundaries of what could be considered as a reasonably held different opinion, or a sponsored content used to promote ministers and their achievements, and which has some basis in factual truth. While giving equal space to both sides of a story is an admirable principle, the uncritical publication or promotion of “stories” or “opinions” based on a complete inversion of facts renders the publishers or promoters whether they like it or not, complicit in a disservice to the public.

On paper, in practice

A Council of Europe resolution adopted on 10 June at a Ministerial Conference which was attended also by Malta dealt with the safety of journalists. It enjoins Member States – and therefore also Malta – to “dedicate specific attention and resources to stemming impunity for killings of, attacks on and ill-treatment of journalists and other media actors”.

Hopefully, the government of Malta will now dedicate a lot more attention and resources than it did when providing the latest State reply to the Council of Europe’s platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists, a reply published on 19 May this year.

In October 2019, the platform registered a threat when, journalists Carlo Bonini, John Sweeney and Manuel Delia received a letter termed “private and confidential” from Carter Ruck, a specialised law firm with offices in London. Carter Ruck declared “it is instructed by the government of Malta (the Government) in connection to the authors’ communication on 2 September to the Prime Minister, his wife, and three government ministers”.

Malta has now – after 17 months – replied to the alert. That one line, where even the formalities were dispensed with entirely, is the information provided by the Permanent Representation of Malta to the Council of Europe: “The individuals referred to in the alert have not occupied any office within the current Government since January 2020.”

Specific attention and resources, indeed.

                           
                               
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