A culture of normalised hate-speech

It is also undeniable that this barrage of inflammatory hate-speech is at its most severe when the topic of discussion is migration: revealing a level of racially-motivated hostility that cannot be justified by any legitimate concerns over this sensitive issue

On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, the Institute of Maltese Journalists joined international press associations worldwide, to remind the public of how essential the free press is to the maintaining the freedoms we all take for granted.

“Maltese journalists are being harassed on a daily basis”, the IGM warned. “While skimming through comments posted on social media as a reaction to the daily medical bulletin by the health authorities, or beneath news articles or opinion pieces related to the latest migration saga, one may easily notice vile threats and bullying. This is not and will never be tolerable.”

The IGM’s complaint is, in fact, perfectly justified; as can easily be confirmed by a cursory read of the public comment boards on any online local newspaper (including this one).

It is also undeniable that this barrage of inflammatory hate-speech is at its most severe when the topic of discussion is migration: revealing a level of racially-motivated hostility that cannot be justified by any legitimate concerns over this sensitive issue.

Journalists who cover migration issues are routinely insulted and abused for their pains: as are NGOs involved in rescue missions, or assisting in integration initiatives. Perhaps the most insidious recent example was the recent spate of malicious abuse targeting Xarabank’s Peppi Azzopardi (and his wife), over his offer to accommodate rescued migrants in his own home.

One does not have to be a fan of either Azzopardi or Xarabank to appreciate that this form of crude, ad-hominem attack on a journalist (or anyone, for that matter) is simply unacceptable by any standard.

It can also be very dangerous. As is inevitable with verbal violence, such language can (and often does) extend to acts of physical violent targeting journalists and social workers: as was the case when arsonists set fire to the homes of Daphne Caruana Galizia, Saviour Balzan and JRS lawyer Katrine Camilleri in 2006.

But such behaviour is by no means limited only to migration or racial issues. Unfortunately, Malta’s tendency towards political tribalism can be seen to have intensified in recent years: and what passes for ‘political discussion’ often degenerates into undisguised hate-speech.

The advent of social media appears to have greatly amplified this sort of discourse: to the extent that it is now considered ‘acceptable’ to simply heap insults (often of the basest and most depraved variety imaginable) on anyone who expresses a different political opinion from one’s own.

Nor can it escape notice that the nature of these attacks seems to intensify when the target happens to be a woman. One recent example involved V18 Artistic Director Mario Philip Azzopardi, who unleashed a torrent of hate-fuelled abuse directed at Nationalist MEP Roberta Metsola.

Thankfully there was considerable fightback in this case: even if, ironically, this too was often politically-motivated. For while Azzopardi’s comments were indeed despicable, they were no worse than many other similar disparaging comments directed at Labour sympathisers every day: without eliciting any backlash from the same people who now condemn Azzopardi.

As if to illustrate this very point, it had to be none other than Labour MP Rosianne Cutajar – who was also singled out for lewd, misogynistic criticism by Nationalist commentators – to leap to Metsola’s defence.

“My message is simple: in politics, you debate and bounces ideas off each other. You won’t always agree (I barely agree on anything with Metsola). But offending people and saying they are hated is not acceptable to me,” Cutajar said.

“This is a lack of civilised debate that leads to hatred and yes, unfortunately, to violence,” she ended. “Let’s not be a part of this.”

Faced with what is fast-developing into a dangerous culture of ‘normalised’ hate-speech, what is needed is more interventions like this, by politicians who - whether they realise it or not – are instrumental in influencing public opinion, and shaping the popular mood.

For these and other reasons, MaltaToday backs the IGM’s “call on the authorities, including politicians, to understand and most importantly pronounce themselves against any type of anti-media rhetoric.”

The public, too, needs to call out such cases of abuse targeting those who are ultimately only trying to do their job. We cannot and should not remain bystanders, in the face of online hate-speech driven by politics.

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