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Intolerance puts rights at risk

Open democracies flourish on the right of citizens to express their opinions freely and associate themselves with any movement without fear of retribution. But one worrying reality that we all have to face is that hatred and intolerance are moving into the mainstream of Maltese society.

The traditional and social media are increasingly contaminated with moral violence and discrimination against political minorities and occasionally also against migrants.  Few can deny that freedom of speech is resented by some influential power peddlers in the ever-changing political landscape.

Intolerant political rhetoric is not confined to fringe extremist groups. Even a politically appointed public official in what should have been a non-partisan Valletta 2018 celebrations committee felt he had the right to offend the memory of a murdered journalist by sniggering at a final comment she made just before her brutal assassination.

One ray of hope in this deteriorating scenario is the decriminalisation of libel. But even here the government failed to legislate against SLAPP suits that are a big stumbling block for investigative journalism on which democracies thrive.

There is more than one cause of this erosion of free speech rights. The fact that both main political parties own a TV and radio station with a massive content of partisan haranguing is indeed not helping to promote tolerance of different views.

Social media is often used by party stalwarts to show off their clannish allegiance to their party possibly as a way of thanking their political patrons for favours received. And politically motivated internet trolls try to neutralise any news report that in some way sounds unfavourable to the government.

Malta has for decades practised the politics of political patronage. This abuse of social media is just increasing intolerance of those who hold different political views and encourages corrupt practices such as discrimination against those who belong to a different clan.

Political patronage, so often condemned by a party in Opposition, is quickly established when a party is in power. The ‘winner takes all’ mentality divides the nation and perpetuates the thirst for political retribution when the winds of change usher in a new political administration. Hate speech is only the tip of the iceberg. For political minorities, discrimination in the services offered by the public sector is occasionally a far worse consequence for refusing to conform to the views of the party in power. 

The government seems not to acknowledge that hate speech and discrimination against those of different political views is a problem. Even purely academic comments made by professional experts are often rubbished by government spokespersons because they do not tally with the official government line. We fool ourselves when we say that as a nation we are tolerant by nature and that we have a history of hospitality.

It must be said that this government has promoted the rights of minorities like the LGBT groups successfully. But the bullying of political minorities is becoming more evident both in the traditional and social media. We have even seen cases of editorials in a pro-government newspaper attacking the independent media. And recently the editor of a political blog was the victim of a cyber-attack on his website by unidentified hatemongers who did not like the comments on his blog.

When the government refuses to acknowledge that everyone in this small country, irrespective of their political opinion, could contribute to our country’s prosperity, it will just be wasting human potential and betraying the values that Europe seeks to represent. Reducing intolerance and its symptoms require a strong political will that must be spearheaded by the Prime Minister who has a grave responsibility to preserve the country’s social fabric by emphasising that we are all valued members of a community.

A good start for the normalisation of freedom of expression could be a serious commitment by all politicians to curb intolerance and drain support to extremists within their ranks who frequently use intolerant and coded language to attack their opponents.  Legislation against hate speech and political prejudice and discrimination will be largely ineffective if the political will to make it work is lacking.

As a former journalist, the Prime Minister should speak more openly on how political intolerance puts our fundamental rights at risk. Left unchecked, intolerance and hatred will corrode our values and eat away at our society.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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