Standing up for human rights, only when it suits us

China’s brutal dictatorship is without doubt one of the most repressive governments in the world. Its treatment of its own citizens, and those of the territories it continues to occupy and terrorise, is ruthless and inhuman.

Since President Xi Jinping came into power in 2013, the situation in China has deteriorated drastically as his government’s horrific hardline rule has intensified.

International NGO Human Rights Watch warned in its 2020 annual report that China under Xi is experiencing the “darkest period for human rights in China since the 1989 massacre that ended the Tiananmen Square democracy movement.”

The horrors being inflicted on those unfortunate enough to fall under China’s power include vicious persecutions of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Tibet, the crackdown on Hong Kong, shameful attempts to cover up the coronavirus outbreak and the targeting of whistleblowers who tried to let the world know what was actually happening – including whistleblower doctors and journalists.

Human Rights Watch reported sharply increased repression from Beijing, forced political loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party, internet censorship, mass surveillance across the country and government critics, human rights defenders and journalists who were jailed, disappeared or forced into exile.

Most people won’t need reminding of the above; the news reports of one atrocity after another committed by the Chinese government will be fresh in our minds, burned into our memories.

So I was astonished to see, in yesterday’s The Times of Malta, a full page advertorial paid for by the Chinese government, reporting a speech by Xi in which he urged “world political parties” to “shoulder responsibility for pursuit of people’s wellbeing, progress of mankind”.

The content of the article – or advertorial, given it was paid for by the Chinese dictatorship – was as sickening as the above-quoted lines suggest and not worth discussing. But the reason it was printed in The Times of Malta most certainly is.

Last week, the same newspaper carried a front-page article patting itself on the back for having turned down the money for a “paid” advertorial written by Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban.

The advertorial, they said, was turned down because they “could not accept a full page advert (and the money) of a prime minister who is notorious for clamping down on human rights and who has restricted the free press in his own country.”

The paper, very correctly, lists the Hungarian government’s offences against the free press and its targeting of the LGBTIQ community, which it describes as a blatant violation of human rights for an EU country.

It goes on to say that “responsible journalism means a media organisation should not promote or support action which fosters or reflects intolerance, discrimination and the erosion of the rule of law.”

Their decision to turn down Orban’s advert (and his money, as they were at great pains to say, several times in the same article) was laudable of course.

But it is somewhat surprising that the paper doesn’t have the same standards when it comes to Xi Jinping. Orban is a scourge on the EU and the European continent, on that we agree, but why turn down his advert if you’re going to accept, and therefore promote, the mendacious, brutal regime of Xi Jinping?

Is it because China’s not European and therefore the principles so justly laid out in the newspaper’s public rejection of Orban, are not seen as applicable? Are the Turkic Muslims not human beings too? The Mongolians? The Tibetans?

Is the total suppression of the free press in China not just as dangerous and damaging as that in Hungary?

Maybe it’s the distance that makes China seem less relevant to Malta. But Malta itself, as The Times of Malta knows well, has its own, major issues with press freedom and human rights.

Our government’s treatment of migrants – its willingness to abandon human beings in peril to terrifying deaths at sea rather than do its duty and rescue them – is an appalling contravention of human rights, as was highlighted by the recent UN report slamming the practice of pushbacks and condemning Malta for failing to protect lives it is duty bound to help conserve.

Daphne Caruana Galizia, assassinated for exposing the corruption and criminality of the PL government and its cronies, was the most high profile victim of the Maltese government’s total contempt for press freedom and human rights. It not only abandoned her to the savagery of the foulest of its supporters, but it actively participated in attacking her, in dehumanizing her, and, ultimately, in killing her.

And yet the newspapers here, so sanctimonious about not accepting Orban’s money, are perfectly happy to take the PL government’s money. Should we assume that – just as the paper announced they would reject Orban’s money because it would be tantamount to helping promote him and his vile policies – the fact it accepts the PL government’s money means that it approves of what the PL government has done in Malta? Of its treatment of hundreds of desperate and helpless people? Of what it did to Daphne Caruana Galizia?

Hypocrisy is truly hideous. The Times of Malta, and any other paper that carried the Chinese government’s shameful advertorial, and took the Chinese government’s money, needs to take a long hard look in the mirror. Any media organisation that carries the regular self-promoting puff pieces put out by Malta’s government ministers and paid for by Malta’s taxpayers, needs to do some serious self-examination.

If you have principles you can’t pick and choose when to apply them. Virtue-signalling displays of supposed values and morals when it suits you – such as when a group of international newspapers decide to turn down a propaganda puff piece on principle and shame you into participating – but then accepting the tainted cash of two equally hideous regimes without embarrassment or explanation is not admirable.

It’s disgraceful, dishonest and, above all, an absolute betrayal of all the victims of human rights abuses in Malta, China and across the world.

                           
                               
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