PN MP worried equality law could be used to stifle freedom of speech

Nationalist MP Edwin Vassallo says in Parliament that Equality Bill’s wording leaves it open to interpretation

Edwin Vassallo has voiced his concerns regarding some of the clauses in a proposed equality law, which he said used certain vague wording which left its meaning up to interpretation.

The Nationalist Party MP, speaking in Parliament on Tuesday, said that while the intentions of the equality law were positive, it had been drawn up badly, and could create a “big danger.”

The Equality Bill, which is currently in its second reading stage in Parliament, seeks to make equality a fundamental right, enforceable through the imposition of fines and the awarding of moral damages in cases of breaches.

But Vassallo said that the Bill could lead to loopholes which could create the occasion for it to be used for the wrongs purposes - such as to prevent people from being freely critical - by drawing too fine a line between what was hate speech and what was freedom of expression.

Amongst the wording which the PN MP said was vague, he made reference to a section of the Bill which prohibited the use of threatening or abusive language. If the meaning of this is taken to far, he said, it could be used to stop journalists or Opposition MPs being critical of the government.

“What constitutes a threat? What if I say that this is the most corrupt government in Malta? […] Couldn’t this be seen as threatening or abusive language? Can’t this end up placing us in a trap, even if its intentions are noble?” Vassallo asked.

“I don’t want anyone to be insulting or to use hate speech,” he said, “But we should look at writing the law in a better way, to get where we want to get [in terms of ensuring equality], without creating loopholes and being too broad.”

Daphne Caruana Galizia, Vassallo highlighted, had uncovered many scandals for which, at the time of her first writing about them, there was no proof. The proof has only emerged later. “With these clauses, [Caruana Galizia] wouldn’t have been able to write what she did, because she would have been accused of being threatening,” he said.

Another aspect of the law which he said had to be further scrutinised was the way it dealt with prohibiting insulting discourse. Just because someone did not have the same views as others did not mean that whatever they said could be deemed insulting, he said.

“As a Catholic I didn’t agree with same-sex marriage. If I said that, someone could easily claim to be insulted. This legislation will be used as a ruler for the judgement of people by other people. So one needs to be careful.”

“If someone says they believe in something in a way which differs from how other see it, does this constitute discrimination or an insult? Prima facie, it appears there is the chance for this to give rise to the possibility of a fine under the law,” he noted.

“I am worried, because I can see loopholes which won’t lead to tranquility, but will prevent it,” the MP added in his closing arguments, “The intentions are good, but the way we are trying to get there isn’t. I see big dangers in how the Bill currently is.”

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