Of censorship and cyberbullying

The recent clash between Brikkuni vocalist Mario Vella and OPM aide and blogger Glenn Bedingfield has once again exposed the limitations of freedom of speech

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

The recent clash between Brikkuni vocalist Mario Vella and OPM aide and blogger Glenn Bedingfield has once again exposed the limitations of freedom of speech.

Vella is widely known to be outspoken and vitriolic in his public commentary. On this occasion, however, many felt that his comment about Michelle Muscat (which was both obscene and highly personal) had ‘crossed the line’.

If this is true, it is a notoriously difficult line to identify. As the prime minister’s wife, Michelle Muscat is a public figure in her own right. Closing an eye at the vulgar parts of Vella’s insult, one could easily argue that the main drift of his comment – a criticism of ‘charity events’ which resemble personal publicity stunts – falls squarely within the realms of acceptable ‘fair comment’.

Such was the vulgarity, however, that one cannot really choose to ignore it. This raises questions from certain quarters of whether there should be limitations on freedom of speech, to protect ‘public morality’ – but even that is another notoriously difficult concept to define.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, and as such it is defined by the human rights conventions and case law. The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly established that this right extends to making public figures the butt of our jokes, and even to vilify them. As such, even the most obscene insults are envisaged by the right to free speech. But this doesn’t mean that there are no limitations at all.

In legal terms, exceptions take the form of existing criminal libel and slander laws, and there are also clear and unequivocal limitations concerning incitement to violence. Vella’s comment falls into neither of these categories (for the simple reason that it is impossible to take literally); but as can already be seen, society tends to impose its own limitations regardless of the law.

In this particular case, Vella has already, to an extent, been ‘silenced’ as a result of his outspokenness. Complaints to Facebook got him temporarily blocked from posting comments. And following pressure from Bedingfield’s blog (and also One News, the Labour party-owned station) Farsons denied Brikkuni its stage as a platform from which to exercise the same right.

This in turn illustrates the precise delineation of the limits of freedom of expression. It is technically incorrect to describe this state of affairs as ‘censorship’ (still less ‘state’ censorship); for just as Vella was free to choose his own words when criticising Michelle Muscat, Farsons is equally free to choose which bands to associate with for the purpose of organising a beer festival.

Simply put: one is free to speak one’s mind and to be as vulgar as one likes; but there may be repercussions.

However, this overlooks a very problematic dimension to the case. It remains debatable whether Farsons’s decision was taken directly because of the pressure applied by media close to the party in government. No one can deny, however, that pressure was exerted… and that it came directly from the Prime Minister’s personal aide.

Bedingfield has set a dangerous precedent, by using the full weight of the State behind his blog to influence private entities in such decisions. For unlike other commentators in the public sphere, his public office makes him (and his blog) an extension of the Office of the Prime Minister. If Glenn Bedingfield floats the threat of a ‘boycott’ targeting Farsons products… that threat can be traced directly to a government which wields immense influence over large numbers of people.

It is not the same as Vella being taken to task by another independent commentator (or, for that matter, by a commercial company). Viewed from this angle, the charge of ‘State censorship’ suddenly gains credence. The Labour government cannot dissociate itself from the actions of Glenn Bedingfield (and, even less so, of the TV station owned by the Labour Party). As a blogger, Bedingfield has an unfair advantage over the targets of his criticism: he can enlist the entire government, with all the power this implies, as an instant ally.

As such, Labour is simply emulating the same tactic that saw bloggers like Daphne Caruana Galizia deployed to attack critics of the Gonzi administration… with the added irony that Labour still complains about Caruana Galizia’s ‘hate blog’, while seeing nothing wrong in Bedingfield’s equally objectionable role.

This becomes problematic on two fronts. Bedingfield has not limited his criticism to public figures like Mario Vella. He has even picked on civil servants who have criticise the Labour government, relatives of critics or Nationalist spokespersons, just because of the political beliefs of their parents. It is in fact rich, coming from Bedingfield, to criticise Vella for his comments, when he himself has targeted people who are not even in the public eye.

More than ‘censorship’, then, this is a case of bullying. Glenn Bedingfield wields far more power than Mario Vella, or indeed anyone else: he wields all the power of the Prime Minister. That he would mobilise this might to silence someone – no matter how vulgar that someone may be – can only be described as ‘state interference’.

Politically, it is also unwise. Joseph Muscat has publicly denounced ‘hate speech’ and ‘hate blogs’. It does him no favours that his own office is among the worst offenders.