Thirteen reasons Manuel Delia should have his memory tested

You could literally pick any of Manuel Delia’s 13 points, at random, and find they all apply with spectacular precision to the state of freedom of expression in Malta for the full 25 years of Nationalist administrations

Delia doesn’t seem to ever remember his own recent role in the Nationalist administration that went down in a blaze of corruption in 2013
Delia doesn’t seem to ever remember his own recent role in the Nationalist administration that went down in a blaze of corruption in 2013

A word of warning: this article is going to be a point-for-point response to Manuel Delia’s point-for-point response to my article last Wednesday. So, a) it’s going to be on the long side, as I feel I have a lot to say right now, and; b) if you haven’t read the previous articles, you might get a little lost. You have been warned.

Before getting started, however: it turns out that, in all this repartee… Manuel Delia did not make a single, solitary, fleeting reference to the main thrust of my entire argument in that article. He casually omitted to mention that artists, authors, journalists and publishers faced the constant threat of criminal prosecution in this country until only five years ago… a threat that was carried out most enthusiastically (and spuriously) at a time when he himself was part of the government promoting the very State censorship agenda he seems to have suddenly discovered only now.

Big surprise there, huh? Delia doesn’t seem to ever remember his own recent role in the Nationalist administration that went down in a blaze of corruption in 2013…. corruption, I might add, that took place in the energy department, right under his very nose, in the years when his master – minister Austin Gatt – was also in charge… and which this newspaper eventually uncovered only after encountering a wall of resistance for years.

I thought I’d get that out of the way first, because it’s a caveat that will be cropping up time and again throughout the rest of this article. Now, onto the business.

Delia’s first argument (out of 13) is that “libel laws in Malta are used tactically by politicians to silence journalists. There are dozens of examples of this but I’ll stick to a few fresh ones…”

Whoa, hold your horses there. Why stick only to a ‘few fresh ones’? (Let me guess: because those examples suit Delia’s political argument, but the others don’t, huh?) Why not drag up some older, mouldier cases… some dating back to a time when the government abusing those libel laws happened to be occupied by Manuel Delia’s own party for almost 25 years?

Here, let me refresh his memory a little. In 2004, Lawrence Gonzi instructed his entire Cabinet to sue this newspaper for criminal libel over a satirical editorial which likened him to ‘St Joseph the Worker’. As a result, MaltaToday found itself facing around 15 libel suits at once.

It is worth revisiting that incident, because the Maltese media landscape was considerably different in 2004. MaltaToday was still a new kid on the block; and the older, more established English-language independent newspapers were considerably more accommodating towards Nationalist administrations than they are today. [Note: I worked for the Malta Independent back then, and I know what I’m talking about].

There was no social media, either. So effectively, Gonzi’s kneejerk reaction to being lampooned by one, single solitary newspaper – the only independent one that was even remotely critical of his government – was to try and shut it down altogether.

Here, I shall have to admit to memory deficiencies of my own; but I don’t recall Manuel Delia ever howling about ‘threats to freedom of expression’, when it was his own government gleefully clamping down on the free press.

Point number 2: “in any case, our defamation laws, even as reformed, and the bulk of the decisions taken by our courts in libel cases are contrary to European free speech culture and in their majority would be struck down in the European Court of Human Rights….”

Sorry, but I call bull on that. There have been questionable libel verdicts here and there, sure – and again, I could mention a few that took place long before 2013 – but in the main, Malta’s courts have generally been fair and consistent when it comes to deciding libel cases.

ECHR landmark rulings (such as Handyside vs UK, for instance) are held up as precedents here, too. The Vella Gera/Camilleri case amply attests to this; and so does my own experience of having been sued for criminal libel by the prison director and five prison warders… in 2011 if you please, for an article entitled ‘Grim reality of Victorian prison conditions’ about Corradino Correctional Facility, then under the responsibility of Carm Mifsud Bonnici.

So, if Delia is so convinced that our laws and case history run counter to ‘European free speech culture’, the least he could do is provide a list of cases which he thinks would be ‘struck down in the European court’. My guess is that it would not be a very long list at all.

Interestingly, though, the last time the ECHR was indeed called upon to settle an issue related to censorship, it was the case of ‘Stitching’. If Delia can’t remember the details, I suggest he ask Pia Zammit (who eventually starred in the play when it was finally staged… almost 10 years later). Unless she suffers from the same form of selective amnesia herself, she should surely remember which of Malta’s political forces had worked to ban that play, and keep it banned… and which went on to remove the censorship laws that permitted it to be banned in the first place.

“Thirdly, though our laws are bad enough, some countries have worse ones and the government’s allies have resorted to libel tourism to silence journalists.”

OK: this one’s a little more insidious because the underlying cause for concern here is at least justified. (Though it must have escaped Delia’s attention that this newspaper, and I myself, have been raising it for years). It is true that the wealthy can circumvent our system by filing libel suits in other jurisdictions. But if Manuel Delia genuinely thinks that Malta, as a state, has any power to dictate how other countries apply their own libel laws… he must be suffering from more than just amnesia. For one thing, there is simply no way the Maltese government – or Maltese law courts, or Maltese anything at all – could have possibly prevented entities like Henley and Partners or Pilatus from suing Daphne Caruana Galizia, or anyone else, in London (short of Malta invading and conquering Britain, anyway); and for another… well, this is all getting a little confusing. A second ago, Delia was complaining that our libel laws were primitive by European standards. Now, he’s referring to libel suits filed in the UK…. Switzerland…. the USA….

What, those are examples of countries which ‘have worse laws’ than ours? If so… by Delia’s own argument, the state of Malta’s freedom of expression can’t be all that bad, now can it? We’re better off than three of the most advanced democracies in the world…

Four: “the risk of these proceedings in Malta and abroad, silence journalists from speaking their mind before they even consider doing so. It’s called the chilling effect that is only felt if unlike Raphael Vassallo one places oneself two steps away from the warm glow of the taghnalkoll cult…”

This may come as a small surprise to Manuel Delia, but the chilling effect he speaks of was just as chilling in 2007, when Malta’s entire aquaculture industry turned its heavy weaponry onto little me, and – threat of garnishee orders and all (which were intended at preventing this newspaper from paying salaries) – once again tried to shut this newspaper down. (And whose ‘warm glow’ was Delia basking in at the time, I wonder?)

I don’t feel like digging all that up again; but (unlike Delia) I remember the role the Fisheries Ministry played in all those lawsuits. If Henley and Partners are ‘the government’s allies’ today… what was the relationship between the Malta Aquaculture Federation and minister George Pullicino? Did it prick Delia’s conscience, that the government he formed part of was actively trying to suppress media scrutiny of an industry that contributed 6% of Malta’s GDP? Or was he too busy trying to dodge MaltaToday’s questions about discrepancies in Malta’s oil-procurement figures to even notice?

Reason I asked that last question is that – incredibly – Manuel Delia actually had the nerve to write… this: “journalists are given access by Ministers according to how likely they are to challenge them with questions.”

Doink! I wonder if Delia remembers a certain minister named Austin Gatt… not to mention a certain set of questions regarding why Malta seemed to always be choosing higher prices than necessary to purchase oil… which then led to other questions about why Malta had mysteriously abandoned a plan to convert to natural gas, so that… um… we would continue to buy fuel under the same, dodgy (and ultra-secretive) arrangement…

It would be interesting to see what, if anything, Delia actually remembers of any of that, seeing as it all happened on his own watch. Does he remember Austin Gatt enthusiastically replying to all the media’s challenging questions about Malta’s fuel procurement agreements? Or publishing all the relevant contracts? Because as I recall, Gatt actually brushed off those questions by describing the journalist who asked them as an ‘idiot’.

Makes you wonder if Delia was writing Austin Gatt’s public statements at the time, as he would later do for Adrian Delia.  

Nor is that the only example of selective amnesia in action. Delia must have equally forgotten the 2006 incident, in Parliament, when his boss Austin Gatt threatened to have a One TV cameraman arrested for the grave crime of filming a public accounts committee meeting… after the committee itself had given permission for the session to be filmed.

Interestingly enough, the Institute of Maltese Journalists – you know, the one that Delia evidently thinks ‘doesn’t exist’ – had condemned Gatt’s execrable behaviour at the time. “No journalist should be threatened or prevented from carrying out his duties, even in Parliament,” the IGM said in a statement. “The media has to be able to carry out its duties without fear.”

Let me repeat that last part: “without fear”. It wasn’t a reference to journalism in Malta under Labour in 2019. It was a refence to journalism in Malta under the Nationalists in 2006.

Another small incident Delia would like us all to forget is when Matt Bonanno lost his job at The Times, after Daphne Caruana Galizia had outed him as the guy who ‘incited’ (he did not – he was just tipped off about a possible heckling incident) Nicola Abela Garret to call Austin Gatt a ‘fucking wanker’ on campus in 2011.

At the time, a Gatt henchman made his way to Abela Garret to make her apologise by saying she should be grateful for her university stipend. Back then, it didn’t seem to bother Manuel Delia very much, that an independent newspaper could be apparently encouraged to sack a journalist on purely political grounds – the ones that Caruana Galizia seemed to determine through her blogs against working journalists.

And even if Gatt (or, for that matter, Delia himself) didn’t force the sacking over the obvious embarrassment… the pressure can be seen to have still been there. In 2011, we were living in an age when journalists knew they couldn’t write certain things for fear of losing their job, or getting arrested (chilling, is it not?). Another example: this newspaper being sued for criminal libel – yes, with the threat of imprisonment for its editor – by the PBS head of news directly appointed by Lawrence Gonzi at the time, Natalino Fenech – for printing a right of reply in the newspaper one week later than press law requirements.

Where was Manuel Delia in 2011? What was his job? And what did he ever say about ‘freedom of expression’, throughout the years when he himself was part of the government enthusiastically defecating all over it?

Right: I could almost stop there, because the rest follows the same pattern to a ‘T’. You could literally pick any of Delia’s 13 points, at random, and find they all apply with spectacular precision to the state of freedom of expression in Malta for the full 25 years of Nationalist administrations (including all the time he was part of that administration, and therefore has to shoulder his own share of the collective responsibility).

What’s more, you will also realise that the situation worsened considerably between 2004 and 2013. We had a government that openly pooh-poohed and ridiculed journalists who asked important and challenging questions (about what turned out to be a major corruption scandal); which liberally abused Malta’s libel laws to silence and intimidate sections of the media; which polluted the media landscape through party-owned TV stations (for yes, Delia even brought that up himself… forgetting, as usual, that his own former party has owned and run one of those stations for 20 years)… and ultimately, this was the entire point of my article last Wednesday.

You can’t just ignore all that in a discussion about ‘freedom of expression’ in Malta; and even less can you conveniently overlook the fact that the situation has – whether you accept it or not – improved quite a lot since 2013 (not, of course, unless you have a vested political interest in doing so… like, um, getting back into power, so everything just reverts back to the good old days).

But there are some of Delia’s points that are just too ‘pointed’ to ignore. This one, for instance, is my favourite: “independent journalists who step on the toes of the political parties face an onslaught of organised keyboard warriors coordinated and resourced by the parties themselves…”

Huh? What? Excuse me, please?  Does he mean, perchance, the ‘organised keyboard warriors’ who never miss an opportunity to publicly dismember anybody who expresses any opinion even remotely conflicting with their own? Like, for instance, the ones who took to Facebook en masse to bludgeon anyone who dared express scepticism about the Egrant allegations in 2017? Or the ones commenting on his own blogpost (with, oh, such elegance!) right now?   

At the end of the day, this is the one thing that consistently fascinates me about people like Manuel Delia. It’s not so much that they’re inconsistent, or laughably transparent, or even downright dishonest in how they distort reality to suit their own political purposes. (To be honest, that no longer surprises me a jot). No, it is more the astonishing, spectacular nakedness of their hypocrisy... and how they just don’t ever expect anyone to even notice it at all.

There: that’s just under 2,300 words, and not a single reference to body parts or effluence. At times, I even astonish myself…

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