Hands off the editor!

Leave an empty front chair for Victor, with his name printed and taped, in every press conference you go to, until he is reinstated. And hound Robert Abela and his communications men about their stand on Victor’s suspension

L-Orizzont editor Victor Vella. Photo: Facebook
L-Orizzont editor Victor Vella. Photo: Facebook

The chief editor of L-Orizzont and It-Torċa, Victor Vella, has been suspended by his employer for the last three weeks.

The charges against him are made up and won’t stand in an industrial tribunal, where this will end if they proceed to fire him. In fact, the charges are so embarrassing that the Union Print’s Chief Executive Officer, Omar Vella, won’t state them in public. He accused Victor Vella, who has worked with the newspaper for 27 years, of insubordination for setting headlines without his permission. He also accused him of not publishing a couple of opinion columns by Labour Party candidates.

That in itself is very indicative of the union leadership’s North Korean idea of the job description of a newspaper editor, but it is also just the icing on the cake. Vella’s suspension comes after months of intimidation, threats and an increasingly hostile environment against him, pushed by the union’s leadership on orders from the prime minister’s office.

Their gripe is that Vella has been covering issues that are too inconvenient for our prime minister’s election campaign. Poverty, the rising cost of living, immigrants’ rights, precarious labour ... in between those bland government propaganda stories on L-Orizzont and It-Torċa, Vella was giving a voice to the voiceless. Incidentally, his last main story on It-Torċa’s front page was about the unregulated jungle of the courier industry that yesterday led to the death Ajay Shrestha in a traffic accident, but also a homicide by the system. Victor would have been at the forefront uncovering the systemic injustices that led to this.

And yet, he wasn’t even criticising the government as much as reminding it of the values of humanity and decency. He was in fact highlighting the issues that any union worth its salt would be fighting for.

Robert Abela’s communications henchmen have been so incensed by all this that they have been pushing the narrative – parroted by Union Print’s CEO – that L-Orizzont was ‘made in Africa’ and that it had become the newspaper for black people. Such is the contempt of these people at anyone threatening to dent their illusions of a perfectly-run country, they don’t even realise how racist and despicable they are.

Some people on social media have argued that Victor Vella had it coming in choosing to work for the GWU newspaper. What did he expect, they asked? Since when did we expect L-Orizzont not to be Labour’s mouthpiece? Didn’t he sacrifice his journalistic integrity by working for them?

I find this kind of reasoning very frustrating and unfair to Victor and towards journalists in general. Victor was doing the right thing within the parameters of his institution’s newspaper and now needs our solidarity. There is no question that a union-owned newspaper will have its editorial line. Victor was pushing the working class bread and butter issues that need to be covered more by our media. If anything, he was reassuring Labour’s core constituency that someone was still thinking of them.

Having him fired is not only unfair to Victor, however. It is a disservice to the thousands of GWU members who need an explanation from their union’s leadership. It is also a disservice to our right to information, particularly in an election year, where critical voices are needed more than ever, and we’re not even talking about downright dissent here.

This is also highly indicative of just how unfit for purpose our politicians are, treating us as mere recipients of their bullshit. Nothing new there – I’ve seen similar pressure and contempt by the Gonzi administration whenever they disliked something in print. And I’m told Bernard Grech’s people are equally petty. But the point here is that right now it is Vella who needs our solidarity, and it is for our own sakes.

Editors, even of partisan newspapers, are not mere functionaries for the filthy lot at the top of our institutions. Democracy requires more people like Vella. We require Vella to resume his job and given all the resources necessary to hold the government to account. Even when we disagree with him, we need to defend his space and his editorial prerogative, which gives us the very right to respond in the battle of ideas. Nobody, except the vandals of the truth, will benefit from snuffing out Vella.

Here’s a suggestion to journalists: Leave an empty front chair for Victor, with his name printed and taped, in every press conference you go to, until he is reinstated. And hound Robert Abela and his communications men about their stand on Victor’s suspension. It’s for your own sake, and ours.