University has a lot to learn

Above all, Malta needs critical voices: people who can dissect power and speak to it without fear or favour. If the University of Malta is not capable of providing this necessary asset, the least it could do is not silence others itself

The controversy that erupted at the University’s Freshers Week – when a Graffiti activist had his ‘Ian Borg’ mask taken away by an overzealous campus security officer – seems, at a glance, to be a storm in a tea-cup.

Revisiting the sequence of events, it is clear that the entire incident was little more than an isolated case of one single University official overstepping his remit.

The Graffitti activist who was dressed up as Ian Borg explained to MaltaToday that they were going around campus in costume – complete with the aforementioned mask, as well as other masks which included Sandro Chetcuti – to engage with students on environmental issues.

They were stopped by the university’s security guards, who asked them for their ID cards, took their details and took the Ian Borg mask. The officer concerned justified the confiscation on the grounds that there was to be no “political controversy was allowed at Freshers’ Week.”

If so, that it is simply not a matter for campus security to decide. Moreover, it patently is not the case at all: as all the student/youth sections of Malta’s political parties also have stalls at the University’s Freshers Week.

Up until this point, however, the whole incident seemed to be a misunderstanding by an arguably misguided security guard, and nothing more. The mask was duly returned, and there was no repeat performance the following day: when Moviment Graffiti resumed its activities as usual.

This is where the entire matter should have been lain to rest.

But in the evening, the University of Malta issued a press statement - very servile in tone, possibly due to the dignitaries that would be visiting during Freshers Week - justifying the confiscation of the mask, because security feared the political provocation would ‘escalate matters’.

Unfortunately, this changes the entire face of this otherwise regrettable incident, and turns it into a major cause for concern. It is one thing for a single campus official to forget his place, and make a mistake that might prove embarrassing to the institution as a whole.

But it is something else completely, for the University itself to come out and condone such behaviour… especially on such an absurd pretext.

It is visible to all and sundry that there was never any real cause for alarm throughout the entire proceedings. To argue that Moviment Graffiti’s actions constituted a potential ‘threat to security’ is already laughable, in itself; but to use that as a pretext to justify the silencing of a political dissident on campus, is quite frankly unfathomable.

The University’s position in this matter would have been indefensible, even if this were the first time it had become embroiled in a potential human rights violation.

For this is antother reason why the University should have been more cautious in its response: its statement suggests that it agrees with the act of censorship, when – on paper, at least – it should have been the first to condemn the incident as a case of silencing public opinion (as the University academic staff’s union more appropriately did in its own reaction).

Suddenly, what previously appeared a trivial matter has been blown out of proportion, into a genuine case of possible human rights violations.

For it is now the University, as an institution, to endorse the censorship.

There is a historical irony in all this, as this incident occurred exactly 10 years after the UOM had likewise censored Alex Vella Gera’s novella ‘Li Tkisser Sewwi’, published in a campus magazine.

On that occasion, it had to take a full-blown court case for the law-courts to rule that Vella Gera was entirely within his rights to publish that story… which, by the same token, also means that the University had violated his human rights when it took criminal action against him.

The only reason this aspect is unlikely to repeat itself is because this time, the incident really was too trivial to end up in court.

But that is poor consolation, for a University administration that seems hell-bent on repeating the mistakes of the past, and is once again in breach of the fundamental principle of freedom of expression.

Another worrying aspect is that, unfortunately, the incident also sheds light on how many view freedom of speech in this country : as a gift to be given and withdrawn at a whim, rather than a sacrosanct right protected by international law.

The right to receive and impart information and ideas, for some, is relevant only when it concerns their own world-view. Within this context, the incident was also reminder of the need to constantly remain vigilant on the protection of all human rights: not least, freedom of speech.

For the same reason, one expects far better from the University of Malta. Universities should be a hot bed of debate and activism. It would be a perversion of its core function, if the institution itself were to discourage healthy debate.

Above all, Malta needs critical voices: people who can dissect power and speak to it without fear or favour. If the University of Malta is not capable of providing this necessary asset, the least it could do is not silence others itself.