‘Freedom of speech’ is not ‘wisdom to speak’

Freedom does not imply freedom from the consequences of what one says... this is especially true of people holding public office, whose public expressions are curtailed within a context of appropriateness.

Much has been said about ‘freedom of speech’ in the discussion – not exactly a ‘mature’ one, but that was to be expected – prompted by Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna’s ‘retweet’ of an article comparing Maltese governments to the Mafia.

Yet freedom of expression, as an issue, does not really come into it. The Archbishop was not arrested for his gesture; no laws were enacted to somehow limit public expression on digital media as a result. There was, admittedly, a silly and short-lived petition to have Scicluna removed from his post... which, needless to add, was excessive and unwarranted.

All the same, such responses are inevitable, precisely because the Archbishop – as everyone else – enjoys the freedom to express his thoughts and opinions in public.

But this freedom does not imply freedom from the consequences of what one says. This is especially true of people holding public office, whose public expressions are curtailed within a context of appropriateness.

When Donald Trump made fun of a disabled journalist during the US presidential election campaign in 2016, nobody questioned his ‘freedom’ to do so. Many, however, questioned the appropriateness of the act. Was it decorous of a Presidential candidate to behave that way?

The example might be extreme, and no direct comparison can be made with the Archbishop’s tweet. But in all such cases, the core question remains the same. Was it a judicious idea to send out a digital ‘message’, imparting the impression – however erroneous – that the Archbishop was actively comparing Malta’s government to a violent and malevolent force for organised crime?

It was, at best, a naïve decision... especially considering that it cannot be seen in a vacuum. People who took offence will have understood that the article Scicluna chose to share was broadly in line with a narrative advanced by the former Nationalist leadership before the last election (and repeated ever since) – that Malta has become a ‘Mafia State’ since the election of Muscat’s government in 2013.

This line, in itself, represents a gross exaggeration with which many people (including many Nationalists) are not at all comfortable. No Maltese government can be equated to the criminal violence perpetrated by the Italian Mafia, which has murdered literally scores of people – including judges, magistrates and policemen – in recent years. Not even a misguided PR stunt, such as Muscat’s €5 million donation to Puttinu Cares, can be equated to a Mafia-style dispensation of charity. This sort of overreach by PN critics only diminishes the credibility of otherwise legitimate criticism directed at government. PN leader Adrian Delia was wise to rein it in.

On another level, Mgr Scicluna should be conscious of a widespread perception that he is naturally predisposed to be against Labour. To be fair, he has his reasons. Labour has advanced many progressive agendas that are anathema to the Catholic Church: gay marriage, divorce and assisted fertility, to mention a few. The Archbishop must surely understand that the timing and nature of his public statements will be scrutinised against this backdrop.

But the most compelling factor concerns the nature of social media itself. ‘Retweets’ can carry ‘political’ consequences. They can become endorsements, but they also depend on who is doing the retweeting. Such a simple technological gesture, in itself, cannot be held up as a dangerous act of imparting seditious knowledge. Nor should every single public personality fear the act of sharing articles on social media.

But someone like the Archbishop lives in a different context: the expectations of his role demand a more careful curation of his social media persona. What he shares is more influential than what others share.

In praise of Graffitti and KEA

On a separate note, it was ironic to observe the Malta Developers’ Association taking umbrage at a peaceful civil society protest against Malta’s planning regime last Thursday.

Malta’s construction lobby “condemned” a protest by Graffitti and Kamp Emergenza Ambjent activists that upstaged a meeting of a Planning Authority board. The board was debating yet another request for the relocation of an urban petrol pump into a larger area outside development zones in Luqa.

The Malta Developers Association said that “issues such as this” should not bring about “illegal pressure” on PA board members.

The MDA would be wise to weigh its words more carefully. The so-called ‘pressure’ applied by those NGOs was not ‘illegal’: on the contrary, there are laws (including the Human Rights convention) which guarantee them the right to peacefully protest.

And there is much for them to protest about: their demands were not only reasonable, but admirable and fully supported by the law. The issue here concerns the PA’s tendency to grant permits for petrol stations which are in ODZ areas – and therefore illegal anyway – and also in violation of Malta’s own urban planning policies. It is quite frankly unconscionable to carry on pretending the Structure Plan does not exist. It does exist, and it specifically precludes such development.

Yet permits are approved all the same. Under such circumstances, one can only expect civil society to remind the authorities where their real allegiances should lie. So yes: pressure is needed. And plenty more of it.