‘The threat is too great’

Does a young woman really have to be executed or dismembered, before we understand that this is not something a functional democracy can afford to ignore?

Last Saturday, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat reportedly told EU leaders that the (very audible) protests during the ‘Southern EU Summit’ were an indication that people in Malta were ‘free to protest’.

“Here we are open in everything, in the skies, and in freedom of speech.”

It was, perhaps, a clever way of side-stepping what must have been an embarrassing moment from him personally. But Joseph Muscat should know – indeed, the whole Labour movement should know, from its own past experience – that there is a difference between ‘being free to protest’, and ‘being able to protest freely’.

Two very different things. There is not much point in ‘freedom of protest’, if the people who exercise that freedom are afterwards targeted, harassed and persecuted with impunity.

And besides, such freedoms are very easy to concede on paper. It takes nothing, beyond a simple parliament majority, to ensure that a country’s legislation ‘guarantees’ freedom of expression to all its citizens.

It takes a little something more to back up that ‘guarantee’ with the promise of action: to create the necessary infrastructure to ensure that anyone who does choose to peacefully protest…  can at least do so in basic safety.

I am sorry, but this just does not apply to Malta right now. Occupy Justice were not the only protestors that day… another, smaller group of activists were exercising the same freedom on another side of the same square: trying to raise awareness about Malta’s archaic anti-abortion laws, which – they argue, (and I agree entirely) – violate the rights of Maltese women.

And yes, I am aware that it is a very unpopular point to make, in a country where the vast majority sees no difference between ‘abortion’ and ‘murder’.

But whatever one makes of the argument itself, there can be no doubt that the law fully upholds the right of any citizen to make any such concern public, so long as it is through peaceful means.

It is a right enshrined in the Universal Charter, which is entrenched into our Constitution. It is also one of the fundamental pillars of any functioning democracy.

Take that one right away, and in an instant your country can be reclassified as a dictatorship: no matter how many other token nods to democracy may be contained in its law-books.

What defines a ‘dictatorship’ goes beyond the lack of any Opposition (a situation we’re already in anyway, thanks to the spontaneous combustion of the PN). It is also a place where the public cannot express opposition to government policy, without suffering negative consequences.

Those pro-choice protesters I mentioned earlier? They consisted in literally a handful of young women aged between 18 and 26, silently carrying placards with pro-choice slogans.

Within 24 hours, they were the subject of various intimidating online posts and messages: including at least two clear, unambiguous death-threats/incitement to murder.  

The first came from a certain Charlie Farrugia (which turns out to be a real, confirmed Facebook profile): ‘Shoot these bitches in the head one by one facing each other’.

The second came from Lee Grech (identity as yet unconfirmed), who said: ‘If it were up to me I’d allow abortion, but first I want to cut you [protesters] up into pieces alive, like babies are cut, and when there is only one left I will ask her whether she still wants abortion or not, after seeing the others cut up.’

Take a moment to savour the (entirely comparable) nature of those two messages. Inherent in both is an undisguised sadistic to urge to torture before killing. The first is a classic ‘execution-style’ scenario we’d associate with Isis; The second is straight out of Brett Easton Ellis’ ‘American Psycho’.

Note also how they are directed at a group of young women, whose ‘crime’ is to have publicly stated that they are pro-choice.

Well, men have been saying that for years, without ever – to the best of my knowledge – having received any threats or harassment.

Was Emy Bezzina ever openly threatened in any analogous way? He was leader of the Alpha Liberal Party, which was officially pro-choice.

What about John Zammit of the Men’s Rights Association? Did anyone threaten to cut him up into little pieces, because he expressed himself (on countless occasions) to be in favour of abortion in all circumstances?

Make no mistake, this sort of behaviour is exclusively reserved for women, and it comes exclusively from men. It is the text-book definition of misogyny; and there is a law specifically against that, too.

It’s called the Istanbul Convention Against Domestic Violence and Violence Against Women, and we ratified it last March.

Add to that the issue of hate-speech, threats of violence, incitement to violence, and poisoning the public peace of mind (more on this in a sec), and there is more than enough to prosecute both on multiple charges.

Yet both these threats were reported to the police more than 48 hours ago; and no arrests have been made.

At the time of writing, no one has even been called in for questioning.  

This should not surprise us, because a similar report was filed by Roberta Metsola almost a month ago – she was told, “careful, or you’ll end up like [Daphne Caruana] Galizia”… and though the man who posted that has since even publicly admitted to the crime on Facebook… still, no arrests have been made.

We seem to be living in a country where the police don’t think it’s their job to investigate death threats. Even though, in the past two years alone, we have seen: one journalist blown up in her car, after having received countless death threats in the past; and one Ivorian man killed in a random drive-by shooting… after over a decade of openly racist hate-speech masquerading as ‘commentary’ on the social media.

How many death threats have to be carried out, exactly, before we start taking them seriously? Does a young woman really have to be executed and/or dismembered, before we understand that this is not something a functional democracy can afford to ignore?

OK, by now I imagine you’re probably thinking: but how serious are those threats, anyway? Would Charlie Farrugia and ‘Lee Grima’ really carry them through?

Unhesitantly, in both those cases (but maybe not in Metsola’s) I’d say: Yes, definitely. Anyone who takes such perverse pleasure in thoughts involving torture and terror is, to my mind, clearly capable of passing on from imagination to action.

It would, in fact, be criminally short-sighted to assume otherwise… in a country where people have already been killed for analogous reasons.  

But even if we allow for the possibility that they were both just ‘joking’… well, that fails to take into consideration the more generic effects of this sort of unbridled verbal violence on the rest of society.

Those protesters are not the only victims of this crime. Anybody else who might have been considering ‘protesting’ in Malta – about anything under the sun – will also think twice, given that: a) we have created a hostile and violent climate where discussion can (and usually is) muzzled by the threat of force; and; b) clear-cut cases of bullying, harassment and intimidation consistently go uninvestigated and unpunished.

Applied specifically to the abortion issue, it translates directly into a small minority being actively stripped of their human rights, with the full acquiescence of the police. I have taken the liberty to reproduce a message I received when discussing this issue online: “I am all for protesting but I have a chilling feeling this is different, the threat is too great”.

Got that, everyone? ‘Chilling feeling’: the ‘chill-factor’ isn’t only caused by SLAPP legal action. It is also caused by those who create a culture and climate of fear.

‘The threat is too great’: those two messages cannot be seen in a vacuum. They form part of a growing chorus of belligerent online ‘pro-choice bashing’, that – while rarely actually crossing the threshold into hate-speech – nonetheless acts an instant, insurmountable barrier to free, open discussion.

Here, we shall have to pause to admire the beautiful outcome of decades upon decades of anti-choice brainwashing in schools and elsewhere.

What moulded Charlie Farrugia and Lee Grima’s decidedly twisted viewpoints, I wonder?

How did they come to the conclusion that it’s perfectly OK to openly threaten torture and violence upon young women… if not that their mindset is actually just a reflection of everything we’ve all been taught in school, at home, at Duttrina, etc., since early childhood?
Well, this is the result of all this ‘pro-life’ dogma we’ve had shovelled down our throats for so long.

We have not managed to protect a single unborn foetus from harm – one just died in hospital, in case no one’s noticed, with the parents claiming it was the result of hospital negligence.

Funny, how the hospital staff hasn’t been arrested and charged with culpable manslaughter yet… – but boy, have we succeeded in inculcating an atmosphere of fear and brooding menace surrounding the mere mention of the word alone.

Now, we can’t even discuss the issue without having to resort to personal protection measures (seeing as we clearly can’t rely on the Maltese police force to protect us).

That’s not ‘freedom of speech’. The laws may be in place, but there is simply no attempt, of any kind, to really make Malta a safe country to freely speak in.

And people ARE scared to speak here. Not just about abortion. I believe it was former minister Censu Galea who once famously got himself recorded saying: ‘let’s face it: we all know we’re a nation of cowards….’

Well, he was right. Malta has always been a place where people are terrified to speak up, about anything at all.

But today – with an entirely laissez-faire attitudes towards serious crimes which specifically target free expression – the situation has dramatically worsened. So no, Dr Muscat.  We are not ‘open in free speech’ here. We are not ‘free to protest in safety’. It is the State’s obligation to make Malta safe again; and not a single one of its institutions is even trying.

And something has to be done about it, now: before someone else decides to go out looking for a cat to kill… and ends up shooting a woman instead.

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