Back to censorship, under ‘progressive’ Labour

Surely, the country’s entire justice system should have far more serious work to attend to, than prosecuting a comedian for ‘cracking a joke’ (no matter how distasteful that joke may have appeared, to some)

In a Facebook post about the police's decision to press charges against satirist Matt Bonanno – over what can only be described as an innocuous (though hard-hitting) online comment - former Education Minister Evarist Bartolo argued that a democratic society “is measured by the extent to which it tolerates criticism and prickly comments”.

There can be little doubt that Bonanno’s brand of humour is indeed ‘prickly’; and there is also plenty of evidence that Malta – as a democracy – is not very ‘tolerant’ of that form of satirical approach, either.

In fact, Matt Bonanno himself is but the latest target in a string of similarly ‘censorious’ cases, opened by the police against various other writers and commentators over the years.

And it seems that certain Nationalist MPs also need reminding, that some of those cases take us all the way back to when the PN was last in government (and when people like historian Mark Camilleri, and author Alex Vella Gera, had likewise found themselves in the dock, over similarly ‘offensive’ published material.)

Clearly, then, we are looking at a problem which transcends both the individual charges pressed against Matt Bonanno; as well as the partisan hue of the current political establishment.

The problem is, very simply, this: that by Evarist Bartolo’s own yardstick, Malta does not measure up to very high standards at all, when it comes to such fundamental democratic values as ‘freedom of speech’.

And this has very worrying implications for the state of our country’s democratic health, in general. It is not just that we evidently still find it difficult, to even understand that elusive concept of ‘free speech’ to begin with; but we also tend to invest absurdly disproportionate resources, when it comes to actively pursuing such trivial cases in court.

Bonanno’s case makes a particularly good example. Apart from the prohibitive costs involved in defending himself from such spurious charges, Bonanno also faces the (admittedly unlikely) possibility of a maximum sentence of up to E50,000.

This is because the police chose to charge the suspect - not with ‘hate-speech’ (as one might expect, given the circumstances) - but with two violations of the Electronic Communications Act: namely, Article 48 - which “prohibits the use of electronic communication networks or apparatus for a purpose other than their intended use”; and Article 49, which holds that: “Any person who by means of an electronic communications network or apparatus […] threatens the commission of any crime” is liable to a fine of €25,000.

Given the nature of Bonnano’s comment – a clearly tongue-in-cheek proposal to ‘carpet-bomb’ both the River of Love organisation, and the entire town of Bugibba – the police’s over-reaction is clearly just as exaggerated, as the humour which provoked it.

But this, too, has implications for Maltese democracy. It seems that, not only is Malta merely ‘deficient’ (in the literal sense of the word) when it comes to our core democratic values; but we are arguably ‘inimical’ to those very values, too.

In this case in particular, it seems the Police Force went to extraordinary lengths, to brow-beat a single ‘prickly’ online commentator into submission.

And in so doing, other institutions – including the law-courts themselves – have now been embroiled in the same charade, as well.

Apart from the sheer disregard for basic human rights, displayed throughout these proceedings: this also constitutes a classic case of ‘misallocation of resources’.

Surely, the country’s entire justice system should have far more serious work to attend to, than prosecuting a comedian for ‘cracking a joke’ (no matter how distasteful that joke may have appeared, to some).

And indeed, the anomaly only intensifies when one also considers all those other occasions, where the same Police Force failed to act on similar (albeit much more serious) cases of hate-speech, incitement to violence… or even outright death-threats.

Questions have, in fact, already been legitimately raised regarding an apparent case of double-standards.

Unaccountably, the same Malta Police Force chose to ignore other reported death-threats, in the past: including one which threatened to ‘shoot [female pro-choice activists] in the head’ (in which case a police report was filed more than two years ago; but never acted upon since).

And while the comparison may be odious: it is worth remembering, too, that the police’s (and other institutions’) ‘failure to act’ was cited as at least one the causes, behind the recent, shocking femicide of Bernice Cassar.

Nonetheless, the more pressing question concerns the political direction of the country as a whole.

It may have been facile, for an inexperienced Nationalist MP like Eve Borg Bonello to argue (as happened in parliament this week) that cases like Matt Bonanno’s only show us how ‘authoritative’ and ‘dictatorial’ the country has become, under its present [Labour] government.

It does, however, certainly remain anomalous that such clearly anti-democratic behaviour is taking place today: under a Labour administration that also prides itself on championing ‘human rights’; and having a ‘progressive, moderate’ agenda.

There is nothing ‘progressive’, or ‘moderate’, about simply bullying people into silence. So if the Labour Party does want to retain its reputation, as a ‘progressive political force’ in this country: this is one area that certainly needs attention.