Death threats are a serious matter

The realisation that there are still people out there who would use that murder to actively intimidate others… even if the intention was not to carry out the threat. makes me seriously consider whether it’s worth carrying on writing at all

It’s been a depressing couple of weeks for people in the business of making their thoughts and views public in this country. Depressing enough, I might add, to even have to use such an incredibly self-evident statement as a headline.

But let’s rewind a little. Two weeks ago (almost) to the day, PD’s candidate Camilla Appelgren claimed to have received death threats in connection with her public stand of abortion: which forced her to shut down her Facebook page just five days before the election.

It attests to the gravity of the situation, that so many people instantly rallied to her support… without even asking to see those threats with their own eyes. Appelgren’s claim evidently chimed in with a general aura of intimidation that we all know exists. It echoed other, similar (albeit public) threats received by other pro-choice activists in the recent past: including members of the recently formed ‘Voices For Choice’ coalition.

Yet astonishingly, a full two weeks later these claims remain unverified, and entirely in the realm of allegation. Appelgren did not make the threats public immediately upon receiving them; nor did she file any report to the police until almost a week after the election (in which, I might add, she received an impressive 3,000 votes: almost double the number received by the same party’s leader, Godfrey Farrugia.)
And this, mind you, was but one of a whole series of misadventures reported by the Partit Demokratiku in this campaign.

Godfrey Farrugia himself separately claimed that his private clinic had been ‘vandalised’: when in reality, it looked more like someone simply forgot to turn off the bathroom tap. Earlier, PD deputy leader Timothy Alden alleged that another PD candidate had been ‘beaten up’ for political motives. On closer scrutiny, the incident turned out to be more akin to a family fight spilling over into politics.

On election day itself, Godfrey Farrugia would even claim ‘voting irregularities’ at the polling stations (a very serious allegation indeed… given that the two blind women he claimed were ‘prevented from voting’, might have raised his tally from 1,680 to 1,682).

I don’t know. For a party that has only existed for two years, that’s a lot of ‘fouls’ to cry in the space of just a few weeks. To put it into perspective: Alternattiva Demokratika has existed for more than 25 years… indeed, the party was founded at a time when all the above allegations would have been regarded as ‘commonplace occurrences’ at every single election (and even in between).

Yet if you tot up all the times AD has made similar complaints in the past, it probably still falls short of the record set by PD in this campaign, and this campaign only.

Nonetheless: a death threat is a death threat, is a death threat, is a death threat. So even to allege one, without proof, is a serious matter. In itself, a public announcement that a politician may have been forced, through threat of violence, to shut down her campaign, has ramifications for the rest of society. It contributes to an already existing aura of fear and thuggery:  it calls to mind the brutal assassination of

Daphne Caruana Galizia in October 2017, which had traumatised (and still traumatises) the entire country.

I would like to think that Cami Appelgren is a responsible politician; so I imagine she was fully aware of the implications of what she was saying, when she said it.

So even just for these reasons – aside from the seriousness of the crime in itself – those death threats claims should have been instantly investigated by the authorities. The police may initiate an ‘ex officio’ investigation into such cases; but they are powerless to do so if the evidence is withheld.  After all, you do need to have reasonable certainty that a crime was actually committed (‘habeas corpus’, and all that) before investigating it.

In any case, Appelgren did eventually go to the police… last Thursday, just a few hours after Nationalist MEP Roberta Metsola had immediately reported a (very public) death threat she received online. All the same, however, Cami stopped short of actually filing the report. This is how she explained her decision in a Facebook post:

“During the meeting I was told that the police would need the data of my whole mobile to be extracted to their system to retrieve the screenshot (no URL available). This due to them not being able to select in detail what would need to be extracted. [...] Me being a politically exposed person and an activist, I very often receive highly sensitive data from sources wishing to be anonymous for obvious reasons. Some even fearing for their safety. […] I took the decision that the safety comes before my own.”

At the time of writing there has been no official denial by the police, so I can only assume that Cami Appelgren – who was accompanied by a lawyer – is telling the truth. And guess what? It is a serious allegation in its own right.

For starters, it suggests that the police must have changed their procedures when dealing with death threats. I know of two other cases which are comparable to this one; and on both those occasions, the police simply took a screenshot of the actual message, without demanding access to the entire mobile phone data.

In fact, the request doesn’t even make any sense. All the police really needed to proceed, in this case, was a copy of the message to present as evidence in court; and the identity of the person who made the threat. The former could be obtained simply by taking a photo of the mobile screen displaying the message; the latter simply by taking note of the telephone number.

Much more seriously, Cami Appelgren’s assertions imply that the police actively discouraged her from pressing charges. They placed unreasonable conditions, to which Cami rightly objected.

This brings me to the implications for the free press. Like death threats, ‘protection of sources’ is a very serious matter to any working journalist. It is, in fact, illegal for the police to demand a journalist to reveal their sources; and there is case history to prove it.
What this means is that if I, or any other journalist, were to receive a death threat on my mobile phone… I would not risk reporting it either, for the same reason. I am confident most other journalists would feel the same way.

Net result? Death threats go uninvestigated. The culture of fear and intimidation goes unchallenged. People remain afraid to speak their minds, to do their jobs, etc. Fear wins again; rule of law loses.

Naturally, all this hinges on whether the claim is indeed a reflection of what actually happened in the police station last Thursday. It is difficult to be sure, given that the police have not – at the timing of writing – either confirmed or denied the allegation. And to be fair, there could be other issues involved. (It might, quite frankly, boil down to simple communications issues due to language barriers.)

Either way, we need to know. I, for one, need to know if the police can be depended upon to investigate such serious crimes. It may have a future bearing on myself, as well as everyone else in the media… not to mention pretty much everyone else, everywhere.

You don’t need to be a ‘public figure’ to receive a death threat, after all.

But that was just one instance of this apparent ‘death-threat impunity’ in action. As already mentioned, Roberta Metsola also filed a police report over a death threat this week. This time, however, there can be no doubt as to the severity (or indeed existence) of the threat. A man named Josef Farrugia openly warned Metsola on Facebook to: ‘Be careful, or you’ll end up like [Daphne Caruana] Galizia’.

In other words, ‘watch your back from now on, or you might share the fate of that other woman who was blown up in her car’. And this, two years after the murder which everyone, quite rightly, described as a ‘direct assault on freedom of expression’.

I won’t bother listing all the reasons why this is absolutely, and appallingly, unacceptable. Same as the headline: there are some things that are just too bleedingly obvious to have to be spelt out.

What I will do, however, is describe my own reaction to those chilling words. In an instant, all the horror of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder was reawakened. Once again, I relived the (imaginary, this time) experience of hearing the hooting of horns, as people took to the streets to celebrate the fact that a woman had been killed by a bomb in her car. I almost felt physically sick.

And yes, maybe I’m a wuss. Maybe I need to grow a backbone, and stop moaning, etc. But I spent a sleepless night going over that trauma again. The realisation that there are still people out there who would use that murder to actively intimidate others… even if the intention was not to carry out the threat (which, let’s face it, no one can really be sure of anyway)… makes me seriously consider whether it’s worth carrying on writing at all, in a country which evidently still doesn’t take such matters seriously, in spite of everything that’s happened.

For once again, no police action seems to have been taken. No arrest has been reported so far (though admittedly – and hopefully – this may change before you read this). Once again, it is as though nothing happened at all.

It cannot be that a country which has signed up to so many conventions about the protection of free speech – not to mention the Istanbul Convention Against Violence Against Women – simply ignores serious threats to life and limb in connection with freedom of expression.

You cannot have ‘free speech’ when people are openly threatened for what they do, say or represent… without facing any consequences whatsoever.

And just in case anyone out there is even dreaming of defending that death threat as an example of ‘free speech’ in itself… well, that’s like saying that ‘deliberately running over someone with your car’ is an example of ‘freedom of movement’ in action. It is just patently ridiculous.

You are free to speak, but you are not free from the consequences of what you say. I must conclude this article by demanding that the law is enforced, and that both these serious crimes – and all other analogous ones – are fully and thoroughly investigated.

Honestly, though… that I should even feel the need to spell that out…

 

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