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Brazenness, corruption and lies: A tale of two prime ministers (Demo)

Going, going….still not gone

The last week of November was perhaps the most dramatic so far in the investigation into the 2017 murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Arrests, resignations, further allegations of corruption, apparent revelations of witness-tampering and incidents of deliberate interference with the independence of the press came at break-neck speed, resulting in Prime Minister Joseph Muscat announcing that he would step down – eventually – in January 2020.

It’s difficult to imagine another European democracy where a prime minister who has been accused of permitting a culture of impunity, and whose close friends and political allies have – at the very least – strong links to those charged in a murder investigation, delaying his departure like this. Protesters in Valleta are telling Muscat to go; the press is telling him to go; activists are telling him to go; Pieter Omtzigt, the PACE rapporteur who produced a damning report on rule of law in Malta, has told him to go “at the earliest possible opportunity”; the Caruana Galizia family, which accuses Muscat of delaying his resignation in order to protect himself and his friend and (former) Chief of Staff Keith Schembri, has called on him to go.

It’s impossible to adequately summarise in a brief round-up all the developments of late November, but the basics are as follows: businessman Yorgen Fenech was arrested and charged with complicity in Caruana Galizia’s murder; Muscat’s former Chief of Staff, Keith Schembri, resigned and was arrested and questioned by police in connection with the murder investigation; Fenech has links to Schembri and claims that he has evidence proving that the former Chief of Staff was involved in the murder conspiracy (a letter by a middleman whom Muscat pardoned in return for his cooperation with the murder investigation alleges the same); Economy Minister Chris Cardona also resigned, as did tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi (who has since been reinstated). All three government officials (and Muscat) had been subjects of Caruana Galizia’s investigative reporting and scathing commentary.

Muscat’s conflict of interest in the investigation is obvious for all to see. Pieter Omtzigt has said, in very cautious language, that the prime minister may be “implicated” in the case. David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, and Agnes Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-judicial Killings, have called on the prime minister to completely remove himself from the inquiry into Caruana Galizia’s killing because of his links to those implicated in the crime.

The Caruana Galizia family has called for Muscat to be investigated.

IFEX members have been very engaged in the Caruana Galizia case since her murder. They have published numerous joint statements on the recent developments, calling on Malta not to restrict press scrutiny of the investigation, warning the prime minister against political interference in the case, and reminding the authorities to prioritise arresting those who ordered the murder.

November’s revelations shocked lawmakers across Europe, and, in light of the seriousness of these developments, the EU Parliament sent a mission to Malta in early December. After meeting with Prime Minister Muscat, MEP Sophie In’t Veld said she had not been reassured by what she had heard and that Muscat’s decision to “stay on longer than necessary is another error of judgement”.

Black eyes, cracked ribs and the UK’s disinformation election

It is broadly accepted by people across the political spectrum that the Prime Minister of the UK, the Conservative leader Boris Johnson, is exceptionally dishonest in both private and public spheres; he also has a well-documented history of making racist, Islamophobic, sexist and homophobic remarks.

This is all bad. However, for free expression advocates, two details of Johnson’s history will be particularly worrying.

The first of these is that, in 1990, while working as a journalist, Johnson conspired with a convicted criminal, Darius Guppy, to physically attack another reporter (a recording of the telephone call in which the plan was hatched, and in which Guppy said the reporter would receive “a couple of black eyes” and “a cracked rib” is available on YouTube).

The second detail is that Johnson, whilst a journalist, was notorious for spreading disinformation and was even fired for fabricating stories. Former EU external affairs commissioner Chris Patten described Johnson as “one of the greatest exponents of fake journalism“. Patten is also a former Conservative government minister.

It should be unsurprising, then, that the Conservative Party’s campaign tactics in the lead up to the UK general election on 12 December have been both dirty and dishonest, and that they have put concerns about other parties’ (at times) questionable approaches to the facts firmly in the shade.

The Conservative Party’s disinformation tactics include: renaming its Twitter account “factcheckUK” for the duration of a leaders’ debate, and using it to disseminate partisan information disguised as independent verification; setting up a fake website for those wanting to read the Labour Party manifesto (and substituting the manifesto for lies about Labour policies), then paying Google to ensure that it appeared at the top of Internet searches;  editing video of Labour Party MPs to produce misleading content; editing video of BBC journalists so that they misleadingly appeared to be endorsing Conservative policies. This list of disinformation tactics is far from exhaustive.

The Conservative Party has also attempted to interfere with independent media during the election.

Although the other major parties haven’t plumbed these depths, the Liberal Democrats have come under fire for, among other things, a deliberately misleading use of graphs and bar charts,

The Labour Party, which has an embattled relationship with a lot of the national press, hasn’t pursued a disinformation strategy; however, a small, but very vocal minority of its supporters do have an ugly reputation for shouting down and intimidating journalists who ask the leader, Jeremy Corbyn, awkward questions.

Gender focus

Ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (25 November), IFEX member Bianet reminded us why it’s so important to keep the spotlight on misogynistic violence. It reported that, from January to November, men in Turkey had killed at least 302 women; 64% of the victims died at the hands of their partners or ex-partners. Please check Bianet’s report for more shocking statistics.

On 23 November, days before the government announced new measures to tackle domestic violence in France, activists organised large, cross-country rallies against femicide (France has one of the highest rates of murders linked to domestic violence in Western Europe). The measures, when they were announced, included the seizure of firearms from abusive spouses, better police training, the creation of 1,000 new places in shelters for victims, the lifting of rules covering doctor-patient confidentiality so that health professionals could report suspected cases of abuse, and a new clause covering harassment and “psychological control” which will be written into France’s criminal code. Women’s rights activists criticised the measures, saying that not enough funding had been allocated to address the problem properly and that many of the measures announced were not actually “new”.

On 28 November, the European Parliament adopted by a large majority a resolution on the Istanbul Convention on violence against women, calling for the urgent conclusion of the EU ratification of the Convention and urging the seven member states that have signed but not yet ratified it – Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia and the UK – to do so without delay.

Russia’s so-called “gay propaganda” law was used to open an administrative case against a YouTube channel after it broadcast a show in which a young, gay Russian man answered children’s questions about his life (the interview did not include any discussion of sex). Later, Moscow’s investigative agency also opened a criminal investigation alleging that the show amounted to sexual assault of children. The young man who took part in the show, Maxim Pankratov, has been receiving death threats and the show’s producer has fled Russia in fear of prosecution. The BBC has produced a short, very moving video about the story, including interviews with Pankratov, the producer and one of the children who took part in the show.

In brief

In late November, lawmakers in Russia approved a bill giving the authorities the power to label individual journalists “foreign agents” if they work with organisations designated as “foreign agents”. It will require these journalists to register with the Ministry of Justice and their work would be marked with a “foreign agent” label. The bill was signed into law by President Vladimir Putin in early December.

There was welcome news from Turkey in November, with the acquittal of academic Fikret Başkaya (who had been facing 7.5 years in prison on “terrorism propaganda” charges; IFEX members had publicly called for the charges to be dropped. There was also good news in the release of writers Ahmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak (after three years in pre-trial detention on terrorism-related charges) and the acquittal of Mehmet Altan; however, bad news quickly followed when Ahmet Altan was re-arrested: IFEX members described the re-arrest as a form of “judicial harassment”.

For an analysis of the role played by an “unfit for the task” judiciary in Turkey’s crackdown on free expression, check out a new report (by IFEX members and others): Turkey’s Journalists in the Dock: The Judicial Silencing of the Fourth Estate”.

IFEX members wrote a public letter to the authorities in Kazakhstan, calling for the release of journalist Amangeldy Batyrbekov, and a reconsideration of the criminal defamation laws under which he was sentenced in September. The charges against Batyrbekov were based on a complaint filed by a local education ministry official over alleged insults posted on Batyrbekov’s Facebook page. The journalist was convicted of criminal insult and libel and was sentenced to serve two years and three months in prison; his appeal is ongoing.

In southern Italy, journalist Mario De Michele survived an apparent attempted assassination when unidentified gunmen opened fire on his car, hitting the vehicle with six bullets. De Michele, who was not injured in the attack, has previously reported on organised crime; he believes that the attack was a message from the Camorra crime organisation to cease his reporting.

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