The day after Malta police went on a rampage, indiscriminately kicking in doors and damaging private property without search warrants, Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri hit out at NGO Repubblika, saying it was “an extremist faction”, building on hostility members of the government have shown to civil society actors and journalists.
Residents living in Malta legitimately were left with doors wrenched off their frames, or entire door panels kicked in as police put up a show of force, accompanied by their dogs, The Times of Malta reported.
The minister proudly announced the police’s heavy-handedness on his Facebook page. “At the moment in Marsa. After last night’s raids related to drugs and irregular migration, this evening illegal structures are being removed by Clean Malta”. He uploaded photos of a mechanical shovel destroying illegal structures.
Was it necessary for police to use such force to check people’s documents? Was it necessary to leave residents without a front door and unable to leave their homes for fear of being burgled?
Was this even legal? Who authorised such violence by our police?
Several days have passed since law-abiding residents’ properties were broken into by the police and their property damaged. Yet Byron Camilleri has not apologised or justified the entirely gratuitous use of force.
Of course, action should be taken to remove illegal structures. But even such action should be conducted with due care. Camilleri’s enthusiasm to demolish those illegal structures in Marsa should be applied to all illegal structures on the island.
For example, Robert Abela’s business partner Simon Buhagiar illegally built a road, covered it with tarmac, built walls overlooking that road and illegally changed the use of land from agricultural to gas cylinder storage. No action has been taken against him. His illegal structures have not been demolished.
Not only has Joseph Portelli’s illegal batching plant on public land not been demolished with a mechanical shovel, but Abela’s government procures concrete from that illegal batching plant.
Despite carrying out illegal excavation works in an outside development zone in Qala, Portelli’s illegal swimming pools in the middle of a valley were not destroyed but instead sanctioned by the PA. Board chairman Martin Camilleri jumped through hoops to get Portelli his approval.
The FKNK’s illegal structures in Miżieb, referred to as “the mecca of illegalities”, have not been dismantled.
Illegal structures at St Peter’s pool are still in place despite over six years of enforcement notices and the PA’s claims that the illegal structures were removed.
The minister’s targeting of defenceless, voiceless groups smacks of naked populism. In a nation where 52% of 16 to 25-year-olds describe themselves as ‘very racist or slightly racist’, his brutal tactics will surely win him praise.
With a new generation of MPs in the PN, like Gozitan Alex Borg, lobbying police to deport immigrants, it’s no surprise that the public reaction to the indiscriminate police raids in Marsa was muted.
Whether such unduly aggressive police actions fall within the law is highly dubious. Yet nobody bats an eyelid since those targeted are ‘foreigners’.
Martin Niemoller’s famous confession springs to mind. “First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a communist; then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist; then they came for the Jews, but I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Byron Camilleri is making sure of that. He is publicly attacking and discrediting civil society organisations such as Repubblika.
He accused the NGO of being “an extremist faction of the PN”. He was reported saying that “when Repubblika stops being so selective, I will start taking them more seriously”.
His intention is clear. He aims to discredit, intimidate and harass those who stand up to Labour’s excesses.
The European Union Agency for Fundamental Human Rights (FRA), in its report ‘Challenges facing Civil Society Organisations’ pointed out that “civil society is a vital component of functioning democracies and indispensable for the full protection of human rights”. Not for Byron.
The UN special rapporteur highlighted civil society’s contribution to protecting civil and political rights. The EU agency insisted that “civil society organisations need to be able to carry out their work in an atmosphere free from hostility and attacks on their legitimacy and reputation”.
That is exactly what Byron Camilleri is doing, together with other ministers, subjecting NGOs to public hostility and attacks on their legitimacy and reputation. Energy Minister Miriam Dalli used similar words for Moviment Graffitti.
Such hostile public discourse, particularly by ministers, has negative consequences. It undermines public trust in civil society organisations and makes citizens less likely to support or treat them as credible sources of information.
It has a chilling effect on civil society, that same chilling effect that the Caruana Galizia inquiry report highlighted.
Labour has learnt nothing from the Caruana Galizia tragedy and the ensuing public inquiry. Despite Robert Abela’s empty promises that “lessons will be learnt”, Labour’s ministers continue the trend by disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat of investing in discrediting activists and journalists who insisted on holding him accountable.
Byron Camilleri knows that sustained attacks on Repubblika and others will achieve the desired results, as they have in the past.
The EU Agency for fundamental human rights condemned such attacks as they “create an atmosphere that provokes verbal and physical attacks and encourages harassment and persecution”. And Labour knows it.
The minister knows it too, which is exactly why he’s engaging in such reckless, irresponsible, dishonest statements.
After all, he’s just emulating Robert Abela. Flanked by his whole cabinet in a live-streamed press conference, Abela accused Repubblika of “wanting to damage the country at a difficult time”. Glenn Bedingfield accused them of “working in the interest of the enemy”.
The government’s hostility towards civil society actors is intended to harass and intimidate. Don’t be fooled by Byron Camilleri’s disarming lack of charisma and his robotic monotone. His blunders are as fatal as they come.