Upholding human decency

This is not about just one journalist, it’s an affront to the liberties and freedoms we all hold dear, as long as we are not selective in our definition of freedom of expression

As we heard the news of the brutal murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia on Monday, each and every one of us experienced shock, horror and disbelief. This is not about just one journalist, it’s an affront to the liberties and freedoms we all hold dear, as long as we are not selective in our definition of freedom of expression. Winston Churchill defined free-speech thus: “Everyone is in favour of free speech. Hardly a day passes without its being extolled, but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone else says anything back, that is an outrage.” 

The air we breathe got heavier, and that was what the murderers wanted to achieve. How we reacted was important. I am sorry to say the PN leader got it very wrong. The fact that a man with a recent history of insulting her, and five libel suits outstanding, tried to use her killing to gain political capital, just hours later, is shameful. It shows how far we have to go as a country.

She was a student of mine way back. In those days, we talked about how to write a good story, how to investigate, follow a lead and build a narrative. Like many journalists after her, we’d end up on different sides of the debate, to put it mildly. As a former journalist but also as a politician, fervent contestations and debates there were many in these circles but nothing undermined the respect in the profession or what it stands for.

I was one of her targets, like many others. The criticism, even the unfair bits, are part and parcel of public life. From an early age, her saying-it-as-she-sees-it attitude was predominant. Over the years she displayed an exceptional devotion to the role of the journalist, with unrelenting force and a strong-willed pen.

In some cases, her writing was of a high quality and penetrating, in others it was gossip, flowing with rumours that she did not check and verify, especially when her prejudices got the better of her. Whatever her opinion, there were no two-ways about it. In a world of grey, she was either black or white. The intensity of how she was absorbed in a story showed a passion which is rare. 

A quote which comes to mind, often attributed to Voltaire but actually written by a relatively unknown woman (the irony), Evelyn Beatrice Hall, goes something like this: I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. 

This is an important distinction which, knowingly or unknowingly, became mixed up in recent days. There is a difference between the content that was written, and her right to say it. You are not being inconsistent when you disagree on the writings, but still support her right to publish. 

The attack on Monday was designed to create the highest level of what is called ‘a chilling effect’ on media and society. Even the manner in which it was planned strengthens this notion. 

There is a difference between the content that was written, and her right to say it. You are not being inconsistent when you disagree on the writings, but still support her right to publish

The aim was to destabilise and freeze you as a journalist or individual, from writing, saying or even thinking something. The attackers want to paralyse the freedoms we should all hold dear. That is why, in these difficult times, we must support journalists, and their close ones, who may now have to fight off the urge to think twice before delving into a subject, such as the criminal underworld. Their ability to write without restraint should be supported by each one of us. 

There are no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ in free speech. You should be able to say and write whatever you want, with the only exceptions being very precise in their definition, such as inciting violence. If someone wants redress there are libel laws.

We are a relatively young nation. We’ve passed through very turbulent times before and this dark chapter in our history must strengthen our values, rather than divide us. It must nourish our ability to voice whatever opinion we might have. It must solidify our values as a society, and as with any set of values, work to make sure the next generations are appreciative of the freedoms and democratic benefits we enjoy.

This was a terror attack, not just on a family and a profession, but on the nation and its values. We must reflect on the role each one of us plays in upholding these values and unite as a society to reject this despicable act. We must do all we can not to descend into tribal politics where the first casualty is basic human decency. We must continue recognising the humanity of each other and treat others as we would want to be treated in the same situation.

Evarist Bartolo is Minister for Education and Employment

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