The first to go is freedom of speech. And it will not be a scene out of 1984, with miserably clad drones crossing their fists to black and white propaganda playing on the screen of a dingy cinema. It will be an ordinary sunny day that people will treat just like any other.

The day we are muted will not follow a night of long knives and a bloody coup. It will happen almost imperceptibly, as we tire of speaking out, drowned by the noise of the everyday. Most of us will be grateful for the relative silence. One less voice in the noise of material cacophony will make the music more bearable.

Think how far we have come. Singly, each event may have been perceived as trivial or, if it was not perceived as such intuitively, it was trivialised by the powerful.

We walked into 2013 seeking liberation from censorship after the police questioned an author for writing an article that offen­ded the Victorian sensibilities of the university authorities.

Changes to the law ensured that we could read Li Tkisser Sewwi, if we were so inclined. But Li Tkisser Sewwi pointed no fingers at the powerful and their weaknesses.

Before 2013, protesters marched in the streets against any attempt to suppress fictional exploitative, misogynistic sex. But in 2017, protesters remained silent when a journalist’s bank accounts were frozen while the court assessed whether her writing on exploitative, misogynistic sex was fictional or documentary.

During the campaign for the 2017 elections, European grandees were paraded on enormous screens endorsing the capabilities of the great Joseph Muscat. But by the end of the year, international news media were giving air time to his critics as they described Malta as a ‘pirate island’, and as overseas attitude to Muscat sour­ed, international exposure was no longer welcome. And so, speaking to the international press has become ‘an act of treason’ and Muscat’s critics are branded ‘traitors’ and ‘collaborators’. We know how this narrative ends.

We lived through two general elections in 2013 and 2017, and our attempts to make our concerns heard were drowned out by the inexplicable wealth of the Labour Party, which found it could afford to plaster Muscat’s face on billboards across the country in relentless populist propaganda. In 2018, three billboards were put up to complain about Muscat and within 12 hours they became history.

Before 2013, the Labour Party screamed blue murder at the sight of a criminal defamation complaint against any of its salaried employees wearing the mantle of journalism, like apes trying to squeeze into Batman’s spandex. The theoretical risk of prison as punishment for the act of writing or speaking out was indicted as a breach of rights in itself. After 2013, Muscat has been caught colluding with the international corporate giants that control him, organising ruinous law suits to be filed outside Malta’s jurisdiction, in a bid to annihilate critics.

Several times over the past  years, documented evidence of coordinated trolling on social media by the Labour Party has emerged: a deliberate sentient methodology coldly calculated to frustrate public discourse, to tie it up in distractions and provocations and to crush it under the weight of sheer overwhelming numbers.

Camera equipment owned by the Labour Party is shoved in people’s faces; preferably victims of crime, in distress and isolation, to intimidate, harass and extract a reaction out of them aimed at making what is already a bad situation worse and to parade their pain for the entertainment of their followers.

We are in theory free to express ourselves, but in reality muted by the deafening roar of the conflagration that killed the voice of our generation

Labour’s critics are flogged in a relentless campaign of hate, the intent of their contribution maligned, its content suppressed, its outcome distorted.

A journalist is assassinated.

A journalist is assassinated.

There is no precedent for comparison. It did not happen before 2013 and it did not happen before 2017. As an event, it may have been unprecedented but the fact that it has now happened means we can no longer rely on the idea that it could never happen. Indeed, it may happen again. A precedent has been set.

The government’s pretence of business as usual, the attempted trivialisation of what is ultimately the loss of human life, the playing of politics with murder: these are not the aftermath of the assassination, accidental instances that could have gone either way. These are as much part of the event of assassination as the laying of the explosives and the uncorking of celebratory wine.

In plotting her death, paying for the act, laying the explosives and triggering the bomb, they killed her. In pretending that the event is ordinary, in trying to justify or excuse it, in seeking to make people forget it, the event continues to play on a loop because there can be no closure in denial of justice.

In prematurely arresting those who could have led them to the masterminds of the assassination and in refusing to consider incentivising their testimony; in retaining stooges they control to lead the investigation of her murder; in accusing her family of treason for the simple act of pursuing justice, they ensure that the assassination is relived daily.

And like lambs in the slaughterhouse with nostrils filled with the sprayed blood of their cousins, we are in theory alive but as good as dead. We are in theory free to express ourselves, but in reality muted by the deafening roar of the conflagration that killed the voice of our generation.

The backbench MP who flew to the Council of Europe to challenge her sons and remind them that their mother had always been free to express herself, could happily ignore, in front of an audience aghast at his obtuseness, that she was never as free as when she was dead.

This is how far we have come.

Now that the inevitable outcome can be predicted on the basis of experience, the trivialisation and the demonisation, the wielding of propaganda, the shoving of cameras in the faces of the innocent, the collective guilt by association, the slander of treason, are even more callous; their intent more transparent.

Knowing all this, we have to ask ourselves if we still have a freedom to lose; if our expression is already so constrained that making the rules any tighter will have barely any consequence. Do not read this article as an alibi. Just because I can write it and you can read it does not mean we are free to do so. The measure of our freedom is in the consequence.

If you consider this article as proof of freedom of speech, you’ll be acting like that backbench MP at the Council of Europe who said Daphne was free to write what she pleased. She was. Until she was permanently silenced.

I live in a country where a journalist was assassinated for speaking out. I may be alive, but I am really dead. I may be free, but I am afraid, and though I do not look it, I know I am well and truly bound.

Which means you are too.

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