Raphael Vassallo

Freedom of speech is not just for Christmas

The murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia cannot be viewed in isolation. It was an action rooted in a mindset that – in its less extreme form – is actually very widespread in this country

Raphael Vassallo
29 December 2017, 10:21am
In a parallel universe, it might go down as the most classic case of ‘stating the obvious’ the world has ever seen. In Malta, it was just another headline. Here it is in full: “Nobody should pay with their lives for expressing themselves – Archbishop”.

By any standard, that is really something that should have gone unsaid. Yet not only was it said... but it was also picked up by the media, and highlighted as a news item in and of itself. I don’t know about you, but I find that quite shocking, really. It suggests that the Archbishop felt the need to inform us all that it is actually wrong to silence people by killing them. Which also implies that we needed to be told in the first place.

And perhaps we did. Perhaps we were not shocked enough by the brutality of what happened last October. Perhaps that is why we still evidently have problems digesting the concept of ‘freedom of speech’ in this country. Even as I write, there are reports of ongoing attempts to silence local news outlets... not through murder this time, but by means of entirely legal court procedures. The Shift News has been threatened with legal action (in the US and UK, please note) by Henley & Partners, over an article that – as far as I can see – falls fairly and squarely within the realms of the printable.

It is a pattern we have all seen before: it only takes clout and money to enlist the forces of law and order to silence your own critics. In most cases it is the local law enforcement capability that is called into action. Corporations like Henley and Partners can afford to extend that principle to the law courts in other countries... but the underlying principle remains the same: ‘we will silence you, because we can (and because you can’t stop us)’.

One does, of course, have to draw a distinction between ‘silencing through murder’ and ‘silencing’ by any other means. It would be utterly inane to compare those two scenarios on a like-with-like basis. Yet for all their differences, the end result is indeed comparable. There are many ways to stop people from talking. Killing them is clearly the most extreme; but even the most extreme method departs from the same motivating impulse. In a word, it can be summarised as ‘intolerance’: an inability to even countenance the expression of an opinion that somehow clashes with one’s own world vision.

Viewed from that angle, I tend to agree with the Archbishop that... yes, actually, we do need to be told the obvious from time to time. Because the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia cannot be viewed in isolation. It was an action rooted in a mindset that – in its less extreme form – is actually very widespread in this country (and probably everywhere else, too... but that doesn’t make it any less shocking). I see minor symptoms of it even in what passes for ‘debate’ on the social media. People seem to be getting less and less tolerant of diversity of opinion. There is an instinctive reaction to ‘block’ – both literally and metaphorically – any contrary or antagonistic thought or viewpoint. When confronted with an alternative perspective – especially one that angers or scares us – our reaction is all too often to try and rid the entire universe of that perspective: not merely to shield ourselves from it, but everyone else, too.

This somehow makes the above headline much more chilling. To be murdered for your views is very clearly ‘too steep a price to pay’. But to be hauled to the law courts – or to be slapped with garnishee orders - is quite a high price, too. And perhaps it needed to be spelt out to us for another reason: this ‘less extreme method’ of silencing people is actually the standard reaction to anything ‘objectionable’ that is ever printed. Few know this better than all the po-faced politicians who regale us with their Christmas messages at this time of the year.  If you had to tot up all the (mostly vexatious) libel suits brought against any local newspaper over the past 50 years, you will find that the overwhelming majority were filed by politicians. That would include all the ones who now wag their fingers solemnly at us, while mouthing all the usual obsequies about ‘freedom of speech’.

But ‘freedom of speech’ is not just for Christmas. It begins and ends with learning how to put up with things you don’t like. And that, too, is something that should really be too bloody obvious to even have to say.