“Jacob, since your own editor decided to enter into a conspiracy with the main strategist of the PN and they were caught conspiring together at Costa coffee I will no longer answer questions intended to allow you to spin as much as you can and to tell as many lies as possible about facts that I gave you of my own free will”. That was Prime Minister Robert Abela’s scathing and grotesque public attack against journalists.
The prime minister of a European State lobbed a tirade of false accusations against a newspaper. “You turned the facts upside down,” he insisted, saying it was “one of many lies spun”, and that this was only “a small plot in Zabbar ” and called The Times of Malta report “disgusting”.
Abela is in bad shape. His rudeness, hostility and emotionality have come to characterise his interaction with journalists. His non-verbal behaviour – his lack of eye contact, his fast stride, his hand gestures and his intimidating stance – betray his confrontational panicked state of mind.
His insults, mockery, vilification, innuendo and accusations are nothing but an assault on journalists and an attempt at undermining the media.
His sneering, head shaking and interruptions coupled with his hostile accusations – you lied, you spun, you conspired, you twisted, disgusting – betrays Abela’s crisis. Too adversarial, too extreme, too coarse, his whole demeanour was utterly distasteful and seriously harmful.
His histrionic language and rude rhetoric damages political trust and intensify the public’s low opinion of politicians. Abela is becoming increasingly nasty, negative and uncivil.
“If you want something really interesting about somebody who evades taxes go and see the villa with a pool belonging to the Leader of the Opposition,” he taunted. Such ad hominem attacks and name-calling have become all too familiar with a Labour government determined to foment a civility crisis. “
“You bunch of imbeciles” (qatta mbecilli), was Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri’s name-calling. “Snakes” (sriep) was Justyne Caruana’s battle cry. “To those intent on spitting venom (jobzqu l-hdura), I challenge them to spit their venom on us because the more you hit us the stronger we become” was Silvio Schembri’s gracious and genteel speech at last Sunday’s Labour event.
Ian Borg, the exemplar of courtesy bayed, “I don’t have to engage with a campaign of a PN candidate” when asked about his position on the Marsascala marina. As he patronisingly grabbed the journalist’s shoulders, he showered him with offensive mockery.
Abela’s most recent pugnacious assault on journalists is of deep concern. With Malta under the spotlight for the hostile culture Labour created and which led to the assassination of a journalist, the last thing we need is our prime minister openly harassing and intimidating journalists.
RSF’s Secretary General Christophe Deloire denounced the “little presidents” (an apt term for the son of the former president) who publicly attacked journalists in a contemptuous defamatory manner. “A threshold is crossed when a prime minister lets loose a stream of verbal abuse against media personnel,” he said.
To drive the point home he added, “journalists cannot function normally if the government that is supposed to guarantee their safety is headed by a person who holds them up to contempt, bullies them and threatens them, opening the way to abuses against the media that go unpunished”.
Those comments must hit every Maltese journalist’s raw nerve. They know very well what risks they run.
Robert Abela would do well to read the Council of Europe’s guidelines on Freedom of Expression, specifically paragraph 15: “State officials should not undermine or attack the integrity of journalists by accusing them of disseminating propaganda and thereby jeopardising their safety”.
The guidelines go further. “Public figures should publicly and equivocally condemn all instances of threats against journalists, irrespective of the source of those threats”.
The Council of Europe makes clear recommendations. When State officials attack the integrity of journalists it is important that such verbal attacks are exposed to hold them to account. They must be condemned by other public figures including through seeking public apologies to journalists.
Parliament should adopt codes of conduct for MPs requiring that they refrain from undermining or attacking the integrity of journalists, refrain from coercing or inducing journalists into abandoning professional standards and disseminating propaganda. MPs should condemn all instances of threats against journalists.
At a time when the protection of journalists should be the top priority for a nation traumatised by recent events, its prime minister, the man responsible for driving through the reforms recommended by the Caruana Galizia inquiry is the one leading the assault on journalists. His political incivility and open hostility is a serious threat to an already crippled democracy and it says a lot about what reforms we are to expect.