Online anger after police enforce media blackout
Labour candidates questioned after Caruana Galizia incident
Blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia’s arrest on Friday night for breaching the pre-election media blackout prompted social media users to openly defy the law yesterday at the risk of a maximum six-month jail term.
After days of speculation over whether the unwieldy law would be enforced, the police appeared to have decided to act on complaints, and yesterday questioned at least seven Labour exponents besides Mrs Caruana Galizia.
It began when police showed up at Ms Caruana Galizia’s home on Friday at 9.30pm, armed with an arrest warrant signed by Magistrate Gabriella Vella based on the alleged breach of Article 114 of the General Elections Act.
This all-encompassing law prevents the publication of “any matter intended or likely to influence voters” in newspapers, printed matter or other means of communication to the public.
After initially resisting arrest and calling members of the media to bring cameras to her house, Ms Caruana Galizia agreed to go to the Mosta police station for questioning and was allowed to leave after giving a statement.
Addressing the press outside the police station, Ms Caruana Galizia criticised the law as anti-Constitutional and said her arrest at night was a throwback to the 1980s when Labour was in power.
During the period of silence, which comprises election day and its eve, Ms Caruana Galizia published more than 30 blog posts, each critical of Labour and urging voters to choose the Nationalist Party.
She continued to defy the law with inflammatory posts about the Labour Party after her encounter with police, prompting many from both sides of the political spectrum to do the same, some openly calling for the police to arrest them.
Meanwhile, the Nationalist Party yesterday filed a number of its own complaints, prompting the police to question at least seven Labour exponents for the same breach at the Floriana police headquarters. These included, MPs Charles Mangion and Helena Dalli, candidates Deborah Schembri, Nikita Alamango and Chris Cilia, Qormi mayor Rosianne Cutajar and Labour supporter Lara Boffa, who featured on a Labour billboard.
The police yesterday refused to answer questions by The Sunday Times about the case, saying only that it was “not prudent to comment at this stage”.
The main political parties also failed to answer questions by the newspaper about discussions that took place in the run-up to the ‘day of reflection’ to see how best to regulate the law.
Sources said the two parties failed to reach agreement during these discussions, with Labour wanting to keep its Google Ads and the PN sticking to its social media ‘I Voted PN’ campaign. Eventually, both had to be removed.
The Sunday Times also sent questions to the Office of the Prime Minister, who is responsible for the police, about whether the actions of the police were considered abusive.
This newspaper, which has long campaigned for the removal of the law to no avail, also asked why the legislation had never been amended to regulate the political parties rather than the media and the general public.
The law carries a maximum fine of €1,164 and/or a prison term of up to six months.
Election silence is common around the world but has been deemed to run contrary to freedom of speech in various jurisdictions, including Bulgaria.
Countries like France and Italy recently saw similar laws circumvented through the use of untraceable Twitter and Facebook accounts.
In some countries it is restricted to activities by the political parties, leaving private individuals and the traditional media to their own devices.