Tackling hate speech

Apart from the needed police action, we should not forget the need for more education – a sine qua non for an effective integration policy

My reaction to the news that the police are setting up a specialised hate speech unit is ‘better late than never’. Racist comments on social media have been too evident and the recent disturbances (or is it ‘revolt’?) at the Hal Far open centre have led to an increase of comments that could only be described as ‘hate speech’ on social media.

The term ‘hate speech’ is normally used for threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour that causes, or is likely to cause, another person harassment, alarm or distress and includes language that is deemed to incite racial and religious hatred as well as hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Any sane law-abiding Maltese must certainly react in disgust at the anti-immigrant comments and suggestions posted in Facebook as reactions to reports on the Hal Far incidents. The Prime Minister emphasised this point in Parliament last Tuesday.

The divide between the right for freedom of expression and the use of hate speech is not always clear. Last year when Boris Johnson was criticised for saying that Muslim women who wear a face veil resemble ‘bank robbers’ and ‘letter-boxes’, his supporters quickly leapt to his defence, depicting him as some kind of ‘free speech martyr’. While such comments may be offensive but not illegal, criminalising the incitement of violence or threats is undoubtedly a justified limit on the right for freedom of expression.

According to the Times of Malta over a fifth of comments posted in its portal, in connection with the news report on the late-night riots at Hal Far, incited violence or threatened migrants with death.

These comments included such ‘gems’ as “men, women and children: kill them all”; “I would burn them all”; and “burn them Hitler-style”. Such comments would have led the police to take immediate action in any European state.

So far, our police have not taken any action against the authors of these blatant threats and of others posted with regards to the same news item carried by other news portals.

Apart from the needed police action, we should not forget the need for more education – a sine qua non for an effective integration policy. This is, perhaps, less of a difficult process with young children, unless they are taught racial hatred by their parents at home.

The victims of the Hal Far fracas included those working with the Agency for the Welfare of Asylum Seekers (AWAS). This agency is responsible for the implementation of national legislation and policy concerning the welfare of refugees. It manages reception facilities, provides information programmes enhancing the chances for welfare and education. Different migrants have different needs. Some would have experienced traumatic events, such as persecutions, forced separation from family and other factors that can have a serious impact on their mental health and can affect their capacity to learn while increasing the chance of despondency or aggression.

This context must be taken into account for any integration policy to succeed – and we are very far off from there!

And yet there is also some silver lining around the black clouds of rascism. One should only look at the primary school at St Paul’s Bay, where overcrowding due to foreign pupils has been ‘solved’ by the introduction of containers that were converted into classrooms. There are even classes in that school where Maltese students are a minority and yet incidents provoked by racial differences there are practically few, if at all.

In other schools, however, we are also encountering situations where a group of students of a particular ethnicity ‘join up’ to bully other kids.

Again, integration is no easy process and it will necessarily fail if it is not planned and structured beforehand – something that has not been really happening.

The Education Ombudsman has suggested that foreign students are first sent for a year on their own to a separate unit, where they could be taught more about Maltese culture and customs, before they start attending mainstream education classes. I have no doubt about his good intentions, but I have serious doubts about an integration process that starts off with emphasising differences.

Malta is a nation built by immigrants, many of whom settled here even though they thought the island will be just a stepping stone in their journey to other places. This is nothing new. An analysis of DNA mutations found in Malta shows that these include those found in southern Europe, the Middle East, including those of Jewish populations and Northern Africa... and that more recently we have also been mixed with northern European – predominantly British – blood.

The notion of some ‘pure’ Maltese ethnicity is utterly not borne out by the facts. But racists always try to create a difference between locals and foreigners, as though the foreigners are second-class beings. Racism is just unjustified prejudice.

A much stronger effort to eradicate the rascism evident in a sector of our population must be made.

The Prime Minister must put his words into action.

A Mafia link?

Last Thursday, The Malta Independent carried a report of a speech delivered in Rome by General Giuseppe Governale, the Director of the Anti-Mafia Investigations Office in Italy, who said that their investigations suggest there is a link between organised crime and ‘big interests’ in Malta.

He explained that the Mafia targets places where gross domestic product is growing and where anti-mafia legislation is less effective. Malta, of course, fits into this description like a glove.

The Italian General raised particular concerns about the Mafia’s exploitation of the gaming sector. He explained that the Mafia moves along two lines: in legal gambling, through extortion or tampering with devices; and in the illegal sphere by producing an alternative network and exploiting cumbersome regulations.

The report says that the Maltese police were alerted first to these developments when they acted upon a European Arrest Warrant issued by the Italian authorities. Subsequently they have also made their own investigations on links between Malta’s gaming sector and the Calabria Mafia.

No doubt we need stronger investigations and measures. The Italian organised crime network must be also attracted to Malta to use our economic model for money laundering purposes. The law is there, all right. However, it does seem that our institutions fail in the implementation of the law by investigating thoroughly cases of suspicions of illegal activities involving foreign-owned money.

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