The government’s crisis management tactics remain unchanged

Over the last couple of weeks,  government officials have showcased many propaganda and rhetoric techniques with which many are familiar.

These were used to counter the consequences of the conclusion of the magisterial inquiry into the Vitals/Hospitals concession deal. We will continue to see them as those being charged will appear in court at the end of the month.

We may see more attempts to discredit, divert attention, and confront the issue – these techniques have remained unchanged since 2013.

Discrediting campaigns

When weathering scandals, government officials and propagandists frequently try to discredit members of Malta’s judiciary, knowing they can’t respond to insinuations made about them.

Disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat has long tried to discredit Magistrate Gabriella Vella, who was investigating the concession of Malta’s hospitals to Vitals and Steward.

More recently, Prime Minister Robert Abela also raised suspicions about Magistrate Vella’s impartiality and motives in response to the inquiry’s conclusions.

Abela has frequently insinuated that the timing of the conclusions was orchestrated to disrupt the European Parliament and Local Council elections. He further alleged that members of the judiciary were part of an ‘establishment’ with the sole purpose of destroying the ruling Labour Party.

Journalists are often also a target, and the government generally makes no secret of its contempt for Malta’s independent press. This contempt is often displayed by ignoring journalists’ questions or making information in the public interest nearly impossible to access.

More recently, the prime minister and Labour Party members singled out an individual journalist for a tongue-lashing during a press conference.

Privileged access, preparing the groundwork

Another tactic the government has employed in a crisis is to spin narratives based on access to privileged information and then broadcast them to their most loyal bases.

Joseph Muscat has been allowed to see parts of the Vitals inquiry that concern him, enabling him to set the context for his upcoming court appearance.

During his first appearance on Labour Party media since his resignation in 2020, Muscat claimed that the case against him was based on assumptions and that there was no evidence implicating him.

Muscat also refers to experts as “so-called experts” in the interview, thus undermining their credibility, a phrase further amplified in Labour party media. Muscat even went as far as to say that the Vitals magisterial inquiry was “worse than the Egrant inquiry”.

What Muscat fails to mention here, however, is that Muscat’s government had also used its privileged access to the Egrant inquiry report to set the context for its prefabricated narratives. At the same time, everyone else had to play catch-up.

Unleashing the firebrands

Something’s usually up when party firebrands and propagandists simultaneously mobilise to rally support and attack critics. Individuals like Jason Micallef and Emanuel Cuschieri have recently been at the forefront of these efforts.

On 7 May, Emanuel Cuschieri announced plans for a protest outside the Court if Joseph Muscat and others were charged with the Vitals magisterial inquiry. Earlier, Cuschieri had also threatened to name businessmen he claimed were trying to stop Muscat from running as an MEP candidate.

On Saturday, the chair of Valletta Cultural Agency, Jason Micallef, used his time on a radio programme to display photos, taken surreptitiously, of chat messages received by Newsbook journalist Monique Agius on her laptop.

Micallef claimed that she “was given questions” to ask by former Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi and members of NGO Repubblika. The claims were then amplified in the Labour Party’s media outlets, which labelled independent media ‘sabotage groups’.

This is not the first time Micallef has attacked the free press: In 2021, he called Lovin Malta “scribbling amateurs” (ħarbiexa dilettanti). He referred to the independent media as “bootlickers”. He called journalist Matthew Caruana Galizia “an assassin who excels in character assassination, a trait that he inherited,” referring to his assassinated mother.

That same year, he also labelled activists ‘extremists’ and ‘vandals’.

None of this is new. After all, people like Micallef and Cuschieri and many others like them are part of a well-oiled propaganda machine that continues to characterise independent media and civil society organisations as part of a conspiracy hellbent on bringing Labour down.

No pretence of ‘positivity’ and ‘serenity’

Under Joseph Muscat’s administration, ‘positivity’ and serenity were often the buzzwords of his rhetoric. For a while, Robert Abela and the Labour Party preached ‘positivity’ and ‘serenity’ and hypocritically equated criticism of wrongdoing with ‘negativity’.

The prime minister’s latest outbursts and insinuations against the judiciary, journalists and civil society show that these pretences of positivity have been abandoned. The judiciary no longer needs to be allowed to work now that it is engaging in “political terrorism”.

Right now, Abela doesn’t believe in supporting “journalism and its important role”. Now, journalists are part of the ‘Establishment’.

Studies of how people process information based on how it’s presented to them have found that the benefit of negative attacks — from a political campaign standpoint — is that they influence everyone. Even a Party’s supporters will be affected by negative attacks because once a negative idea has been planted, it’s hard to shake.

By labelling government critics ‘sabotage groups’, ‘traitors’, ‘elitist’, or even ‘the establishment’, government propagandists assign them a negative frame that has a good chance of sticking, no matter what they do.

Associating independent newsrooms with a political party might lead one to forget the stories and investigations they publish daily about government wrongdoing and the waste of public funds.

The tactics are endless, but fortunately, they remain mostly unchanged.


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D M Briffa
D M Briffa
1 month ago

Thank you, Ms De Gaetano. A useful and very clear analysis.

Marita Gerd
Marita Gerd
1 month ago

For the PL it’s not who is corrupt who is ruining Malta’s name, but whoever speaks out against corruption.
The PL drummed it in their followers’ heads that the PL = Malta.

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