Red Alert! Citizen protesting! I repeat, citizen protesting…!

No local ironic ‘situation’ can possibly be considered complete, if doesn’t have an input from at least one (usually both) of the two political parties

Am I the only one spotting a tiny irony in the University’s reaction to that little censorship incident on campus this week?

This is from the official statement: “The Moviment Graffiti representative was asked to remove the [Ian Borg] mask when he ventured outside the designated Moviment Graffitti stand and mingled with students visiting other stands. It was at this point that security officers, concerned that the matter might provoke a reaction and escalate, decided to act to defuse the situation.”

OK, first things first. That ‘Moviment Graffiti representative’ was actually asked to do a whole bunch of other things besides unmask himself: like show his ID card to people who had absolutely no business to be asking for it (after all, they’re campus security guards… not the bloody Gestapo). But let’s ignore that for now, and go right to the core of the dilemma.

Um… just what ‘situation’, exactly, was there to ‘defuse’?

Let’s see now: Molotov cocktails? Nope. Throwing of stones? Nope. Burning of cars on the ring-road? No, none of that either; nor arson of any kind, nor even just plain old vandalism. (Note: I’m tempted to add ‘no looting, rioting, pillaging or raping, either’… but hey, this was Fresher’s Week, not Graduation.)

OK, tell you what: let’s scale the whole thing down. Was there at least any unruly behaviour on campus? An argument, perhaps, or a heated exchange of insults? Or maybe just a good old-fashioned schoolyard punch-up: you know, with all the other students forming a ring around the combatants, cheering them on, and taking side-bets on the outcome? (Ah, the memories, the memories…)

Erm… nope, none of that either. All that really happened, it seems, is that a single, solitary environmental/political student activist took the opportunity of Fresher’s Week – an event aimed at ‘familiarising new students with campus life’, by the way: which, everywhere else in the world, also extends to protests and activism – to make a valid, pertinent statement about the environmental/political situation our country is in right now.

And he chose the most peaceful, unthreatening way imaginable to do this, too: by dressing up as a makeshift cardboard ‘tower block’, with a mask of Transport Minister Ian Borg instead of a face.

Sorry, but if that’s considered a ‘situation’ that might ‘get out of hand’… what are we to make of all the international student climate change protests, currently taking place in millions of schools (and quite a few Universities) across the world? The start of Armageddon, perhaps?

Because this is something else the University administration has clearly overlooked. That Moviment Graffiti ‘protest’ – if it can even be called as much – took place in the context of a global wave of student environmental unrest. So how would campus security have reacted if it was not just one student, but a sizeable chunk of the University’s entire population that united for a peaceful student-protest about climate change (like most of the world’s student population is currently doing even as I write…)?

Tear-gas and water-cannons, I would imagine… and who knows? Possibly even rubber bullets, like the good old days.  (And they come to us old-timers complaining about ‘situations’… Pah!)

All the same, however, there may be potential security issues, even with such trifling little matters. Personally, my only concern about that activist’s costume would be that… well… what if the fake cardboard ‘tower block’ really does start behaving like some of the buildings it lampoons: and just collapses onto other people the moment somebody starts working too close to it?

But then I’d remember that this was Fresher’s Week at the University of Malta, not Mellieha or Gwardamangia any day of the week. Work? Here? Now? You’ve got to be kidding… won’t start in earnest until the week before the Christmas Holidays, at the earliest…

So – just like the Planning Authority and Building Regulations Unit clearly did with all those real buildings (you know, the ones that really did collapse) - I’d take one look at that visibly unstable little kid in the cardbox-tower outfit, and issue him with a full development permit, no questions asked.

There, that’s it. ‘Situation defused’….

But that was just an aside. It is the irony that intrigues me in this particular case… the irony of a bunch of campus Keystone Cops, who thought they were ‘defusing’ a situation… when in actual fact, they were detonating the bomb themselves.

For whose ‘reaction’ escalated this non-existent ‘situation’, anyway… if not their own? None of the other students present (and there were around 11,000 of them) seemed to take any offence whatsoever; and complaints certainly did not come from the University academic staff. In fact, their union later came out with a statement condemning campus security for their overreaction, and the University administration for defending the indefensible.

Which raises the question of what, exactly, those campus security guards thought they were defending in the first place.

For all the reasons outlined above, it couldn’t have been ‘safety and security on campus’ (which, as far as I can see, is where their remit begins and ends). Nor could it have been ‘the human rights of University students’, which they seem to have violated themselves on multiple counts (freedom of expression; freedom of association; the right to every individual to protest using peaceful, non-violent means… you name it, the University probably broke it, just in this one instance alone.)

This leaves us with only one realistic possibility:  i.e., that those security guards consider their primary duty to be ‘shielding the government from legitimate criticism’… perhaps even ‘defending Ian Borg’s reputation from attack’.

If so… for starters, they should consider an immediate career move, and simply become Ian Borg’s personal security detail instead. After all, if ‘Fresher’s Week is not the appropriate venue for protests’ (yep, folks, the University administration actually said that, too)… then ‘campus security’ is clearly not an appropriate profession for political canvassers/bodyguards, either.

But they should also consult the people they think they’re defending, before launching into the fray. Had they bothered asking Ian Borg themselves, he would probably have told them what he later told the press: “I agree with freedom of expression and personally I didn’t see anything wrong with it” […] “students should be allowed to make as many masks as they want, of whomever they want.”

In any case: whatever the motive, it was clearly campus security – and not that one Moviment Graffiti activist – that was in the wrong here.

Yet, instead of calling in those two unruly security guards for a good earful at the Rector’s office (note: in other Universities they might even face the sack)… the  University administration came out in full force to defend them: precipitating a landslide of criticism from its own staff, and pretty much every civil society NGO concerned with human rights.

Hence the irony. Where there was no real ‘situation’ for University security to even react to on campus last week – still less to justify bullying a protestor, and assuming powers that campus guards have no authority to possess - well, there sure is one now.

I consider it a ‘situation’ that the University of Malta stands accused – for the second time in 10 years – of what is ultimately a human rights violation… for all the reasons already established by the local courts, the last time the same University tried to stifle freedom of speech on its own campus.

That’s a reference to the ‘Li Tkisser Sewwi’ case, by the way… which had been instigated when former Rector Juanito Camilleri reported an author and student editor to the police over an ‘obscene’ story in a campus magazine.

Well, his successor seems to be unaware that Alex Vella Gera and Mark Camilleri were both acquitted by the courts on those obscenity charges: in a ruling that quoted extensively from European Court of Human Rights case-law.

Meanwhile, another analogous case – the Board of Censors’ decision to ban the stage-play ‘Stitching’  – had to go all the way to the EHCR itself, to eventually add to that same case history by establishing (for the umpteenth time) the purely legal principle that: ‘No, damn it, you do NOT have the right to stifle freedom of expression: not on campus, nor anywhere else. (I mean, honestly… how many times do we even have to tell you this, anyway? It’s not like you need a University degree to actually understand it, you know…)’

Well, that what’s the wording would probably look like if I was an ECHR judge, anyhow. But I can assure you that, while the real rulings tend to use slightly different terminology… the overall gist is the same.

But hey! If it’s any consolation to a University administration that must be feeling a little like that classic ‘reprimanded schoolboy in the corner’… they’re not the only ones caught up in multiple ironies of their own making.

No local ironic ‘situation’ can possibly be considered complete, if doesn’t have an input from at least one (usually both) of the two political parties. So sure enough. Labour’s Jason Micallef took a pot-shot at Moviment Graffitti over the political thrust of its message: reminding us of the time when University students sacrificed part of their own sports pavilion for a car-park, and… erm… well, Graffitti had complained about that, too…

Clearly, Jason Micallef himself needs reminding of a few things. Like the record of the people he chooses to criticise, for instance… and above all, his own: all the times he had tweeted messages in support of freedom of expression, when it was a Nationalist government clamping down on human rights, instead of a Labour one (including both the above-mentioned cases, as it happens).

Likewise, Nationalist MEP Roberta Metsola tweeted that: “We should be proud of students’ activism, push them to fight their corner, encourage them to stand up for what they believe in and protect their right to express themselves...even if it means bruising a few sensitive ministerial egos. Even if we may disagree with them. Especially then…”

You mean, like when the Nationalist Party media attempted to besmirch Alex Vella Gera with the ‘paedophilia’ label, over a short story which had nothing to do with paedophilia? Oh wait… we’re all supposed to have forgotten all that now, huh? With Labour in power, the PN’s own atrocious record in the human rights violations department no longer really matters all that much… right?

Oh, I wouldn’t say so myself. I’d say it still matters slightly, that we can now clearly trust no one – outside of maybe the international courts – to safeguard such a basic, entry-level human right as ‘freedom of expression.’ Not the political parties, nor the police, nor any other relevant institutions… and least of all – irony of ironies – the University of Malta.

How’s that for a ‘situation’ that needs ‘defusing’? 

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