TMID Editorial: Hate speech – Where is the serenity?

The word ‘serenity’ was thrown about so often during and even after the electoral campaign that foreigners visiting our shores could think they landed on some happy, hippy la-la land where the sun always shines, the people love each other and unity reigns. But this is not Malta’s current reality. The country still has a lot of healing to do after a short but intense political campaign, and our blue-red attitude to everything under the sun is certainly not helping.

While the party flags have been folded and put back into the drawers, and the sound of car horns has long died down, the air is still tense with talk of ‘them and us,’ of ‘patriots and traitors.’

The following are just a few examples.

Former finance minister Tonio Fenech is being attacked by certain quarters after he said, in an opinion piece published in The Malta Independent, that the PN has lost its Catholic values. One might not agree with Fenech’s argument and say that the PN can simply not afford going back to its anti-civil union days, but surely, we can disagree with someone’s opinion without resorting to disparagement.  

Earlier this week we saw former union boss Tony Zarb using Facebook to urge people to give two PN MEPs a traitor’s welcome. Yesterday, Alfred Grixti, the CEO of the Foundation for Social Welfare Services, lashed out at Archbishop Charles Scicluna for speaking out against hate speech. Referring to David Casa and Roberta Metsola as ‘bad losers’ and ‘traitors’, he says Mons Scicluna is part of the (PN’s) ‘coalition of confusion, and accused him of only criticizing the Labour Party.

The Archbishop’s message, in comments to Times of Malta after Tony Zarb’s ramblings, was pretty straightforward and apolitical: “Hate speech, wherever it comes from, is unbecoming of grownups debating issues of national importance. Democracy will never be served by attempts at character assassination and intimidation of the other.”

There were other instances of inappropriate behaviour during the past few weeks. These included controversial PN candidate Salvu Mallia comparing the Prime Minister to the plague, cancer and a flea.

Another case in point was the editorial line adopted by the General Workers Union’s daily newspaper L-Orizzont, which implied that certain independent journalists should ‘disappear’ because they stuck to the corruption narrative. Those editorials were so extreme that the GWU had no choice but to disassociate itself from them.

But there are other, more common platforms where hate speech is being propagated. The social media, most notably Facebook, is another forum where hate, ridicule and insults are the order of the day. Party officials often engage in hostile commentary and mudslinging, and the masses follow.

The comments boards, not only on the social media but also on news portals such as our own, are littered with spiteful comments coming from people who have no official links to the political parties but who, unfortunately, do not know better – they have been brought up to think of the ‘others’ as the enemy, no matter if it is wartime or peacetime. Naturally, such comments are not published.

There will always be someone who says that this is freedom of speech. But freedom of speech has nothing to do with incitement and rabble-rousing. Freedom of speech is about being able to express your opinion without fear. It is not about denigrating others and urging people to plaster them with eggs and tomatoes because they happen to belong to another political family.

Repeated calls by state figures, including the President, for people to take a step back, calm down and respect one another seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

The recent arson attack on Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando’s dental clinic in Zebbug and the vandal attack on PN candidate Charlot Cassar’s car could easily be the product of this hostile environment. Something has to be done, and quickly, for if we keep going down this road, the next time round it could be more serious than a burnt door or a slashed tyre.