‘Freedom of expression’ also means the freedom to talk out of your ass

The only reason people complain so freely about ‘freedom of expression’ in Malta, is that the Maltese state guarantees them the full liberty to do so

When the chips are down, ‘freedom of expression’ must be the single most misunderstood concept in the entire universe (with the possible exception of Quantum Mechanics, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and Malta’s electoral system).

Take the people who constantly complain about the ‘erosion’ of freedom of expression in Malta over the past 10 years, for instance.  Just to listen to them constantly exercising their inalienable right to free speech, in all possible available platforms: in the newspapers, on TV, in blogs, on the social media, etc… why, you’d think that ‘freedom of expression’ never existed here at all.

Um… excuse me, but what is it that actually plants that doubt in the first place? Is it because people are routinely arrested and imprisoned for publicly expressing their opinions in this country? I somehow doubt it, because… well, under those circumstances, there wouldn’t be any complaints to begin with, would there? In the first instance, anybody who dared complain about anything at all would end up behind bars.

(That, after all, is what the ‘no freedom of expression’ argument implies.) But overwhelmingly more so because, if there really were any such repercussions… most of the people who now blabber endlessly about ‘censorship’, would never dream of even opening their mouths at all.

After all, it is a lot easier to talk (and talk, and talk, and talk) about the repercussions of ‘freedom of expression’, than to actually face them yourself. It doesn’t take a very great deal of courage to complain about imaginary oppression, does it? Real oppression, on the other hand… you need serious cojones to ‘speak freely’ about that (look under ‘Tienanmen Square’ for further details).

So make no mistake. The only reason people complain so freely about ‘freedom of expression’ in Malta, is that the Maltese state guarantees them the full liberty to do so. And – let’s face it - people constantly use that liberty to air private opinions of the most provocative, inflammatory and obtuse kind imaginable. They wield their freedom of expression like a blunt weapon: to insult and degrade other people, on the basis of race, creed, political leanings, and (above all) class… or in other words, to indulge in precisely the sort of name-calling that would be considered deeply problematic and objectionable even in the world’s most liberal, human rights-oriented jurisdictions.

And that’s not all. For just as these people never see how their own outspokenness openly contradicts the substance of what they are actually saying… they can’t seem to see how their own objections actually apply considerably more to the sort of Malta they would like to create themselves, than to Malta we actually live in today.

As I recall, the last people who faced real criminal repercussions for expressing themselves here were novelist Alex Vella Gera, and historian Mark Camilleri. The former wrote a short story entitled ‘Li Tkisser Sewi’; and the latter published it in a University campus magazine. Both were arrested and charged in court for breaching Malta’s outdated ‘obscenity laws’ at the time.

And please note, this didn’t happen in some dark, forgotten phase of our prehistory. It happened less than 10 years ago… when the Nationalist Party was in power, and when many of the people who now complain about ‘freedom of expression’ were openly advocating imprisonment for both Vella Gera and Camilleri (NET TV, for instance, described Vella Gera in terms of a paedophile. And oh look: NET TV now runs endless news feature about ‘censorship’ under Joseph Muscat).

You’ve got to laugh, really. Not just because the hypocrisy is so outrageous that it can only be described as comical… but also because of the spectacular ignorance of the argument itself. I mean… just listen to all the moaners and groaners speaking freely about their pet hates and their private fantasies, all the bloody time, without ever facing any repercussions of any kind whatsoever. It is not merely because the cultural/political situation of today permits them to do all that; it’s also because – while they evidently weren’t looking - the Maltese State has divested itself of most of the means it used to employ to actively silence people, all the time.

I already mentioned Malta’s outdated obscenity/blasphemy laws… well, guess what? They’re history.  Just over three years ago, parliament voted to excise those articles of law from the statute books. So if authors and editors no longer face the threat of criminal prosecution in Malta… it is not just because the Attorney General no longer bothers even prosecuting such trivial cases; it is because there is no longer any law to base any form of criminal action on at all.

Does this make Maltese authors and editors – and pretty much everyone else, given than anyone can be the ‘author’ of a blogpost or a Facebook comment these days – more, or less free than they were four years ago? And if the answer is ‘more’ (which it very evidently is)… then why do so many people insist so doggedly that it is ‘less’?

There is an explanation for that, mind you. But before turning to it, there have been other relevant legal changes that nobody seems to consider worth speaking freely about. Criminal libel has also been eradicated. On paper, what this means that the act of libelling/defaming someone is no longer considered (as it used to be) a ‘crime against the person’, and therefore no longer falls within the remit of the Criminal Court.

In practice, it means you can no longer get arrested for expressing an opinion in a newspaper; you can no longer get arrested (as I once was) for failing to show up to a court hearing; and there is no longer any possibility – however remote it used to be, in reality – to ever end up in prison.

Instead, you will face proceedings in the Civil Court… which, as the term implies, makes the present system far more ‘civil’ (and civilised’) than the grotesquely anachronistic system that it replaced only four years ago.

So the question remains: are Maltese journalists freer today, than they were before 2015? You can guess my answer already; and unlike most of the people speaking so freely about the same subject…I have faced a few of those repercussions in my time. I once had 17 criminal libel cases filed against me in a single day, complete with the threat of a garnishee order against this newspaper (and I need hardly add that the support I got from all these born-again ‘freedom of speech’ crusaders was, um, overwhelming…)

But like I said earlier, there are reasons for this irrational belief. And inevitably, they also point towards a widespread misunderstanding of what ‘freedom of expression’ is supposed to be all about.

Press any of these people to come up with examples of ‘State censorship’ in Malta, and they will cite the ongoing libel proceedings against Daphne Caruana Galizia (and now her heirs) by Joseph Muscat over the Egrant allegations. (Note: Some of the more unreasonable ones might even point towards her murder itself… for all the world as if the bomb had been planted in her car directly by the State, instead of by three well-known criminals, with foreign contacts, who are now facing murder charges in court).  

And again, all these people enjoy the full freedom to make those claims in public... without, as far as I can see, facing any repercussions. But – and this is the crux of the whole ‘freedom of expression’ canard – there is a difference between having the freedom to say something, and actually putting your money where your mouth is, and proving (or, at least, substantiating) what you say.

The Egrant allegation is a good example, so I may as well stick with that. Daphne had the freedom to make her claim that the company in question belonged to Muscat’s wife; and she also had the full liberty to upload transcripts of any documents she claimed to possess.  By no means does it follow, however, that there should be no repercussions, of any kind, in the event that those claims turn out to be untrue.

And – whether any of you personally ‘accept’ the conclusions of the magisterial inquiry or not - there is now evidence that those allegations were false. This puts a slightly different slant on proceedings, I would say. After all, it takes a very unique kind of ‘freedom of expression’ to permit citizens to spread misinformation about anyone they choose… but at the same time, prevent the target of those allegations to even defend themselves in court.

I hate to resort to tired clichés… but then again, clichés are cliché for a reason. Freedom is all well and good in itself; but it also comes with responsibility. You have the freedom to speak, sure… but you will also be expected to take responsibility for what you say.

And that, incidentally, also applies to all those arguing that freedom of expression, in Malta, has ‘gone to the dogs’. Well, I spoke to those dogs, and they all deny the allegation. So either the dogs are lying… or quite a few people out there are just ‘speaking freely’ out of their ass, as usual.

Naturally I’ll leave you to decide for yourselves which of those scenarios is more plausible. (But I’ll give you a hint: it’s only ‘sleeping dogs’ that ever ‘lie’, and I can assure you that these dogs were wide awake…)