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Mum’s the word, vaguely speaking

On Friday night Daphne Caruana Galizia was hauled from her home to a police station for ‘questioning’. The questions apparently had to do with her having breached the ‘political silence’ and desecrated the ‘day of reflection’.

It is not entirely clear what exactly constitutes politicking

I’m not Caruana Galizia’s lawyer or spokesman. Nor do I wish to be her stooge or apologist. Only when a journalist is shut up by the boys in blue, I tend to see red.

Two things immediately come to mind. First, that it’s a bit rich of political parties (because that’s most probably where the complaint came from) to whine and whinge about a breach of the peace after their nine-week blitz on the population. They’ve had their fill, now we must keep quiet to let them digest.

Second, that imposing ‘silence’ and ‘quiet reflection’ is rather like imposing a group fast, say. In other words fine if the imposition involves a group of self-subscribed believers, terrible if it extends to a general population.

There’s something totalitarian and pseudo-religious about this whole day of silence business. I’m not sure what it is but I do know I profoundly dislike it.

The premise seems to be that (following several weeks of bombardment) one day of quiet reflection away from the influence of campaigns will help one make the right decision.

I find that dubious at best, more ritual than logical, and certainly not ideal material for midnight police raids.

By definition, politics is about majority decision-making. It works best in a context of socialisation and mutual influence rather than backroom brooding. That’s why loners tend to have cranky political notions. When a loner by some accident of chance finds themself actually in power, take your belongings and run.

But let us, for the sake of argument, assume that the premise is right, to the extent that it calls for legislation. Among the basic principles of law are those that hold that legislation should be coherent, fair, and enforceable. How does the day of reflection regime stack up?

A good part of the answer seems to hinge on the distinction between ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ media. By the former, we usually mean newspapers, radio and television; since we’re talking campaigns, I’d also include the reams of paper that make our letter-boxes look like they belonged to important people. The new media usually means the internet broadly defined.

Let us first look at some of the similarities between the two. I think we can agree that influence (because that’s what the day of reflection is about) takes place at the moment of consumption rather than that of production. That is to say, irrespective of when a page is printed or uploaded, it may only become influential inasmuch as and when it is read.

That makes it possible for me to sympathise with Jairus’s misfortune in spite of the fact that I’m not 2,000 years old. It also makes it possible for me to spend Friday morning reading, and being influenced by, the stack of glossy paper languishing by my front door – in spite of the fact that it was printed well before that day.

Which means that, apart from radio and television (which are ‘aired’ rather than fixed on paper – although internet streaming complicates that), the quiet-day legislation does not live up to the premise. Even without silicon wizardry, the lifespan of common wood pulp means that it is simply not possible to stop the producers from influencing the consumers.

There’s another thing. It is not entirely clear what exactly constitutes politicking. A full-gloss campaign brochure certainly does. A column on the goodness of Belgian chocolate doesn’t.

But how about a song from Ġensna, or a journalistic piece on how government pays hefty daily fines (to itself, apparently) for failing to finish the Parliament building on time?

I came across the first on Radio Malta on Friday afternoon. The second was the subject of a piece by Kurt Sansone carried in Friday’s Times of Malta. I am not for a second suggesting that the radio presenter (whose name escapes me) and Mr Sansone should be hauled to the nearest police station. I’m sure both were doing their job to the best of their abilities and with no hidden agendas.

Rather, my point is that pretty much everything is politics. This is especially true on this politics-crazed island of ours, and even more so on the eve of an election. In fact, I eat my words, a column on Belgian chocolate would be very sly and partisan indeed.

So far then, it turns out the quiet-day legislation doesn’t do so well in the enforceability and coherence departments. Which brings me to the internet. There are two specific issues. First, the structure of the internet (as in cyberspace I mean) is so complicated and labyrinthine, and its timing so distorted, that it is much more than impossible to police it effectively. North Korea has its very own simple and homegrown solution to the matter which it calls the ‘intranet’.

But we’re not North Korea and a minor change of consonant and vowel matters to us. That’s fine, but it also means I really don’t envy the police officers at the Cyber Crime Unit, working hard to clamp down on online child pornography and such.

I don’t suppose anyone is suggesting they should waste their time policing the huge mass of material for subtle campaign messages on forbidden Friday. Throw in aspects like international law (because it’s possible to live in say Ecuador and politic online in Malta) and you get my drift.

The other thing the internet does is blur the distinction between producers and consumers. That is especially true of what is sometimes called Web 2.0, where uploading and downloading are almost indistinguishable. In what ways for example is a blog different from a Facebook thread?

The irony is that Caruana Galizia came to grief precisely over her online blogging. Why her, as opposed to the reams of comments and online ads and so on? The answer is simple: she’s better-known (and loved, and hated) than most. The corollary is inevitable: Her crime isn’t that she blogged on Friday, it’s that she’s well-known. Tokenism at its ugliest and most extreme.

The upshot is that Forbidden Friday flops online as it does on paper. It’s by no stretch of the imagination enforceable. It’s also unfair, because it invites tokenism and works differently for online and traditional journalism.

Irony of ironies, Caruana Galizia’s case is set to become the first litmus of a new style of government.

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