Freedom of expression has been quoted all over the news this past week, mostly courtesy of the upcoming MEP elections. Which is usually a good thing, of course. Except that in this case, it wasn’t.
Malta is one of those funny places that took quite a long while to embrace the whole idea of “freedom to communicate ideas and information without interference”.
When it was first entrenched in the constitution, the general reaction of the public was like: “What, you mean I am free to make my opinions known to everyone and no-one can stop me?”
This shock was reflected in the way that – until as recently as 2009 – seemingly harmless occupations like practicing a non-Catholic religion in public would lead to raised eyebrows and general mutterings of “well, if this is where freedom of expression gets us…”
Anyone remember the uproar when a number of Muslims gathered on the Sliema front for a spot of peaceful public worship?
The authorities themselves at first experienced equal confusion at this freedom. The gist of it typically went something like this:
Incredulous PC: “What, we can’t stop that afore-mentioned person from worshipping his preferred deity on the Sliema front?”
Exasperated superior: “Well, no. It’s this whole freedom of expression thing, you see.”
Incredulous PC: “Well, I’ll be darned.”
Eventually, freedom of expression became part of the proverbial legislative furniture. Everyone, public, authorities and all, saw that there might be some advantages to a relatively free society and we all took it on board.
And boy, did we all go overboard with taking it on board.
As these past weeks of electoral lobbying have shown, we have gone from being cautiously accepting of ‘freedom of expression’ to using it as mantra whenever we want to generally make donkey’s butts out of ourselves.
And while freedom of expression does, indeed, give us the right to make donkey’s butts out of ourselves should we so choose to, it does not give us the right to incite hatred and xenophobia while we do so.
Yet, in our enthusiasm to be at the forefront of human rights and freedoms, we seem to be conveniently forgetting that Art. 41(1) of the Constitution comes with a couple of conditions.
Including the fact that it can’t be used in order to violate the rights of others. Yes, it actually says so on the box.
Not that anyone following the MEP televised debates during the past week would have thought so, what with particular candidates (I’m looking at you, Norman Lowell) preaching hatred and discrimination like kindness had gone out of fashion. And at first, no-one bat an eyelid because, you know, freedom of expression.
Thankfully, the whole nation seemed to suddenly come to its collective senses and Imperium Europa’s racist publicity spot was taken off air. End of story.
Or not, because the political debates are still taking place and some of the participants still insist on making donkey’s butts of themselves while inciting hatred and discrimination.
And, instead of telling them to shush and let the grown-ups talk, no-one is stopping them because, you know, freedom of expression.
To her credit, while chairing yesterday’s debate on TVM, Ruth Amaira did her best to maintain a level of decency whenever Norman Lowell spoke up.
But the effort was doomed from the start. It was easy to read her face: I can’t tell this person to shut up because…freedom of expression.
Well, guess what. It’s not. We are perfectly within our rights to stop people like Mr Lowell from disseminating hatred. Not because we disagree with the opinion he espouses, but because said opinion is not tolerated by those very democratic principles he continuously misinterprets to justify his position.
It is about time we all realise that freedom of expression comes with a number of limitations that should not be ignored simply because the country is in election mode.
These limitations were conceived for a reason, mostly to protect sections of societies that are more vulnerable, and that are prone to persecution under the guise of our “freedom of expression”.
And yet, here we are, doing the exact opposite in the name of democracy. Ah, the irony.
It has, maybe, become a cliché to say that every right includes responsibilities. But this does not justify ignoring said responsibilities. And if our so-called electoral fairness legislation is making us break one of the fundamental tenets of human rights, then maybe it is a about time that said legislation is given a good overhaul.
But no. We are so obsessed with politics that everything else – whether human rights or human dignity – pales in comparison.
Maybe it’s about time we remember that the elections are there to serve society and not the other way round.