15 human rights NGOs say Ezabe hate speech acquittal ‘condones anti-migrant sentiment’

NGOs say court's acquittal of a man accused of hate speech against human rights advocate Sara Ezabe gave message that strong anti-Muslim sentiments were acceptable and legitimate exercise of freedom of expression

Queen's Young Leaders Sara Ezabe and Annabelle Xerri (right) with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat
Queen's Young Leaders Sara Ezabe and Annabelle Xerri (right) with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat

A controversial decision by a magistrate to acquit a man accused of inciting to racial hatred on Facbeook, has attracted vocal criticism from Maltese human rights NGOs.

Brandon Bartolo was acquitted of using threatening or abusive language with the intention of instigating violence or racial hatred against Sara Ezabe, a Muslim girl, in a series of posts on the far-right Ghaqda Patrijotti Maltin’s Facebook page.

Ezabe, a 21-year-old Muslim student who had founded the #RedefiningUs movement, who is also a commissioner of the National Youth Council in Malta, had contacted the police after reading racist comments made in her regard on the group’s Facebook page. 

READ MORE Man acquitted of inciting racial hatred against Sara Ezabe

The court said Bartolo’s comments were “an exercise of freedom of expression” and that the media was giving more attention to “complaints that affect immigrants than those that affected the Maltese.”

But Maltese NGOs said they were gravely concerned by the decision, saying it gave the message that it is not only an acceptable, but also a legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression, to express strong anti-Muslim sentiments and to state that members of this religious faith have no place in Malta.

The statement was issued by aditus foundation, The Critical Institute, Drachma LGBTI, Drachma Parents Group, Integra Foundation, International Association for Refugees, Jesuit Refugee Service (Malta), KOPIN, Malta LGBTIQ Rights Movement (MGRM), Migrant Women Association Malta, National Foster Care Association, Platform of Human Rights Organisations in Malta (PHROM), SOS Malta, Troup 18:45, and the Women’s Rights Foundation.

“We are also deeply upset that comments made by the Magistrate in delivering judgement, as reported in the local media, were irrelevant, populist and also factually incorrect. In expressing those views, the Magistrate essentially condoned anti-migrant sentiment instead of upholding the human rights values our Courts of Laws are intended to promote.”

The NGOs said it was worrying that the court had condoned the use of hostile and denigrating language because of a personal identity characteristic such as religion.

“Condoning such behaviour risks undermining not only the rights of members of the group directly targeted, but also the right of each and every one of us to be treated with respect, regardless of who we are or what we believe in.”

The NGOs said that while the law protects the right to freedom of expression, this was by no means absolute.

“In fact, the European Convention on Human Rights specifically states that the Convention should not be interpreted as allowing anyone, be it the government or an individual, to behave in a way aimed at the destruction of the rights and freedoms laid down in the Convention. In a case similar to the present one (Norwood v. The United Kingdom), the Court said that ‘a general, vehement attack against a religious group...is incompatible with the values proclaimed and guaranteed by the Convention, notably tolerance, social peace and non-discrimination’.”

They said that statements which clearly incite hostility against members of a particular faith cannot be accepted as legitimate in a democratic society founded on respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. “Such tirades do not only damage, annoy and offend the individual concerned, they also run counter to and undermine the values on which we claim our society is based.”

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