Using tragedy to score political points

Was Burlò free to publish his controversial cartoon? Yes. But freedom of expression also means others are equally free to vehemently disagree with it

First responders shield the top deck of the tourist bus
First responders shield the top deck of the tourist bus

When the news broke on Monday afternoon, it did not take much imagination to realise that the Zurrieq double decker bus tragedy had resulted in horrific injuries, both for those who died on the spot and those who are still in very critical condition. The impact of a bus, even going at a normal speed, smacking into the thick bough of tree, and doctors describing neck, head and upper body injuries could only mean one thing. The media, for the most part, were tactful and sensitively refrained from going into much detail about how the two victims died, although one news portal did carry extensive (and unnecessary) photos of the scene, which clearly showed something on the side of the road, covered by a small white cloth.

It is within this context that one has to ‘read’ Seb Tanti Burlo’s cartoon. Barely two days after the tragedy, the families were still reeling with shock and grieving their loss and here we had an explicit, graphic depiction of two passengers riding on a sightseeing bus with blood gushing out of their necks, and no heads.

The cartoon, which the cartoonist posted on his Facebook page late on Wednesday afternoon, understandably caused an outpouring of public outrage.

Burlo’s explanation on Facebook read: “This drawing isn’t meant to be funny. It isn’t meant to be nice. It is meant to shock. It’s meant to provoke. It is meant to hurt. I am not here to make you laugh. This scribble I did is disgusting. It is offensive. It is crass and everything you said it is. It should offend you because this situation is offensive. Be angry at the situation. Not at me.”

Earlier in the day he had written “be angry at Transport Malta, not at me” although that remark now seems to have been removed. The cartoon is captioned, “Oh, my Malta!”, the catchphrase being used by Nas Daily, the international vlogger who is making one minute videos about the island, and which is being used as a tourism promotion.

We are being told that the deliberate shock value of the cartoon was to make a powerful political statement on many levels: apart from an accusing finger pointed firmly at those (ostensibly) responsible, it is also a dig at the persistently cheerful Nas Daily, who has annoyed some people who view his antics as an overly commercialised marketing gimmick. The grim, ironic use of Oh, My Malta, in the context of tourists dying while out on what should have been a harmless sightseeing trip, is a calculated, cynical attempt at gallows humour.

Was Burlò free to publish his controversial cartoon? Yes, sure, in fact it is still there, circulating online for all to see. But freedom of expression also means others are equally free to vehemently disagree with it. In my view it was heartless and appalling and has only served to continue hurting the very people who have already been hurt beyond repair, as well as those who are still in ITU. This includes two little boys with severe injuries, let us not forget that.

There are those who are fiercely defending the cartoon as an example of free artistic expression in the style of Charlie Hebdo, and saying that the jesuischarlie hashtag meant nothing if we are unable to apply it locally. One slight point though: the public showed solidarity by using that hashtag after terrorists stormed the magazine’s offices and murdering the journalists. While we may strongly object to the cartoon, no one is advocating violence as a response. Burlò wanted a reaction, and he certainly got one.

There are also a few other points to consider:

1. The macabre illustration deals with innocent victims whose memory deserves to be treated with dignity and respect and not exploited to score some cheap political point. Why drag them into Malta’s bickering?

2. Would Burlò have drawn a similar cartoon if the victims were Maltese or does the fact that they were tourists make them fair game? There have been numerous horrific deaths and murders in this country, including those who have been blown up by car bombs. Would Burlò have drawn a graphic cartoon about them in order to “provoke” discussion? I seriously doubt it, because their relatives would have been on the warpath, had he done so. It seems that even the way fatal victims are treated is a selective process (with some of them being completely untouchable), depending on who they are.

3. Public sentiment and opinion is what it is, and cannot be dictated by a small group of people who think they have the right to set the national agenda and claim to voice what others should feel.

4. The most salient fact of all is that, to date, we do not yet know what caused this terrible tragedy. We do not know if it was the fault of the driver, the previous day’s gale force winds, the protruding tree, the sightseeing company, or Transport Malta which is now apparently being expected to chop down all roadside trees to avoid similar accidents. And yet, this cartoon is clearly pointing fingers and implying that the fault lies with the authorities. Unless Seb Tanti Burlò is privy to information none of us has, he has jumped to rather a lot of unfounded conclusions.

There are a host of things for which those running the country can be blamed, but it is unfair and preposterous to blame the government for every single tragedy that occurs, especially when the facts have not yet emerged. It is obvious that the current narrative being pushed by some is to constantly depict Malta in the worst light possible and to bash it at every opportunity. Because we live in a free country, no one is stopping them and they are free to do so, however, there comes a point when such Malta-bashing can start verging into a warped, unhealthy obsession. Unfortunately, tragedies in which tourists die occur all over the world, but I do not see cartoonists using these tragedies to torpedo their own country’s tourism, as seems to be the case in this cartoon. From where I’m standing it seems that the sheer hatred for this administration is now translating into an almost manic hatred for Malta, period.

Is everything in the country hunky dory? No, of course it isn’t. I am as concerned about the alarming amount of recent fatalities as anyone, and I completely agree that the issues of health and safety are a very preoccupying concern which need to be taken very seriously, but I really do not think this cartoon has added anything intelligent or useful to the conversation. Let us keep things in perspective rather than stirring up senseless arguments, while dragging the lives (and deaths) of innocent people into the fray.

Meanwhile, perhaps those who are applauding the cartoon because it is so “brilliant” and cutting edge, need a reality check. To help them I am reproducing the following comment which was posted on Burlò’s wall by Dr Michael Spiteri:

“I am writing this comment on my own personal behalf and i am in no way representing the 112 ambulance service. I was the Medical Incident Officer on site and i cannot see how someone can remotely pass and post such pictures... i have been responding and leading such incidents for the past 19 years and the only common denominator in these situations is sorrow. I would strongly recommend that you should come and join me for a 24-hour shift so that you may also be given the great honour of helping people who are in need... maybe and maybe then you will realise the irreversible damage that such irresponsible postings have on victims, relatives, rescue staff and community in general. I hope this comment will make you reflect on what you just did.”

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