Equality for all: we’ll overcome the language of hate | Rosianne Cutajar

It is high time that we move towards a nationwide debate on the nature of our public sphere itself — on how we speak to each other across different persuasions, on the character of our public discourse

Rosianne Cutajar is parliamentary secretary for equality

At the Stop Hate Malta conference last week, I pledged my commitment to ensure that Malta stays at the forefront of inclusion and diversity in Europe.

As the person responsible for achieving the best of standards for equality in this country, the matter of hate speech is high on my agenda.

Hate speech is a direct obstacle to achieving our goals towards an equal society.

An equal society means that each one of us can set their goals in life and contribute to our nation’s progress and our social wellbeing without fear of being humiliated, vilified, intimidated or in any way harassed.

Hate speech erodes the personal and public sense of freedom and fullness of life that is a right to each and every one of us.

Over the past years, we have introduced a raft of legislation in order to protect the rights of all stakeholders in our society to express themselves freely and without inhibition. And we will of course continue to strengthen our efforts in this direction.

The right to free speech, however, is patently distinct from the licence to say whatever one feels like in relation to other members of one’s own society. Marking out individuals or even sectors of our society as being somewhat deserving of derision, ridicule or abusive language is simply unacceptable.

In my day-to-day life I speak to many individuals, women, vulnerable persons, members of communities who have endured the brunt of public vilification: some handle it on the strength of their personal stamina. Others seek help and solace in their family and their loved ones.

Others simply collapse, as the cruelty of words uttered publicly about them or their loved ones burns through their bodies and their souls.

As I write this, I am fully aware that we live in a moment in which social media platforms are being blatantly abused in order to intimidate, foment hate, and seek to ridicule people as per what suits the perpetrators’ agenda. It is no longer enough for us to counter this by singing the merits of social media.

We need to open up the conversation.

How do we harness social media as a means of ensuring more equality and protecting each other from the language of hate while ensuring our universal right to speak freely?

It is, perhaps, high time that we move towards a nationwide debate on the nature of our public sphere itself — on how we speak to each other across different persuasions, on the character of our public discourse.

We need to ensure that the space of public debate is left to those succeeding us, our present-day children, teenagers, university students, early-career professionals, as a legacy to be cherished.

We need to move towards a public sphere that ensures that opposing political views pool in towards the strongest policy outcomes for our country.

And we need to take further policy actions and reforms in this direction.

Last week, our courts of law handed down two sentences on two libel proceedings I had instituted. The Court awarded me libel damages, and confirmed that calling a woman “a prostitute” on the mere basis of her gender is unacceptable and unjustifiable.

There is, perhaps, not much cause for celebration in having to seek legal redress for acts that were uncalled for in the first place.  But yes, this is an important victory. It is a victory for every woman in this country who has been vilified on the basis of her sex. It is a victory to all those who, for myriad reasons, have had to endure and to live with acts of verbal hatred.

As I write, Godfrey Leone Ganado and Rachel Williams are running a crowdfunding effort to have their legal expenses and the moral damages they incurred financed by donors from the public. This instead of shouldering proper responsibility for their behaviour. Such soliciting of funds to cover expenses ordered by the court in view of their actions flies right in the face of the court decision itself, and of its spirit.

And it raises important ethical questions.

The message being sent out to our citizens is that it is okay to “defend activists” by covering for them the expenses incurred in a court of law as damages for the perpetration of verbal abuse.

I have full faith that our competent authorities and our courts of law will keep strengthening their commitment to ensuring that hate speech will no longer thrive in this country.

I was, throughout what has been for me a particularly meaningful week, reminded of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words a decade ago, as he advocated for the rights of women, of different ethnicities, of different gender and sexual orientations, and of those most vulnerable amongst us: “Hate has no place in the house of God.”

We all know, of course, that regardless of our individual faith, Tutu’s wisdom appeals directly to the common human heart that binds us.