Tista' taqra bil- Malti.
For columnist Desmond Zammit Marmarà what caused and emanated from the protests by civil society a year ago was a betrayal of trust. For NGO activist Robert Aquilina it was an extraordinary time.
This time last year the term ‘stand up and be counted’ took on a very tangible form. From the middle of November right into the first month of the new year of 2020, civil society took to the streets in protest over the political drama that was unfolding. This political drama led to the resignation of a Prime Minister who had won two elections by a vast, by Maltese standards, majority.
But what went wrong? Why was there this public outcry? Was it a sudden groundswell or could an observer see the tide gathering? In Newsbook Q&A this week, political observers and activists Robert Aquilina and Desmond Zammit Marmarà evaluated the impact of the protests and the result they had on society today.
An Extraodinary moment – Robert Aquilina, Repubblika
“It was an extraordinary moment…I was completely focussed on the protests, spending entire days either with the Police Commissioner to notify him of the protests or in Valletta actually protesting….It is not usual that protests are instigated by civil society,” said Aquilina. He said that such manifestations are normally called by the major political parties but in this case, the protests had garnered a wide berth of support. He added that even ‘independent’ media had supported the protests and that it had been reported that the protests had up to 25,000 participants.
Now there was proof
It all started when the former OPM Chief of Staff Keith Schembri first refused to testify and then wanted to drop the libel charges against Simon Busuttil. A little while later, businessman Yorgen Fenech was arrested and a string of revelations started to unfold through the good offices of Melvin Theuma. Aquilina said that the climax came on the 2nd December when parliament decided to suspend sittings for the Christmas period and to reconvene only when the government had a new leader.
“The scenes we witnessed were harkened what we were used to seeing in Romania and such places, certainly not in Malta,” said Aquilina, “and they were justified in that from that point forward, no one could ask ‘Where’s the proof?’ because the proof was now to be had”.
A country divided
Aquilina is not of the opinion that the protests increased the political divisions which plague the country. He appealed to all those who vote labour to see that the party is cleansed. He praised the police for their restraint and understanding during the protests and underlined that there was mutual trust during the whole episode. He recalled an incident when the protesting crowd was hemmed in by crash barriers. In a tension-filled moment, the crowd took the barriers and lifted them high up. Aquilina says that this was a moment which could have turned nasty and the police were visibly shaken. However the crown just replaced the barriers because, according to Aquilina, they just wanted to show that the crash barriers were ineffectual. The incident evaporated, concluded Aquilina.
The Hate Crime Section in the police force, said Aquilina was created simply to tick a box. There is neither the will nor are there the resources to render this section tuly effective, he said. In his opinion, campaigns are required to raise awareness against this uncivilised form of communication which is also done to instigate a waves of insults and harassment.
They were right – Desmond Zammit Marmarà, columnist
“At the time, perhaps, some of us did not have complete optics on the situation. I think that Repubblika and Occupy Justice were right…events proved them right at least,” said Desmond Zammit Marmarà, well known columnist and sometime local councillor for the PL. What had annoyed him in the protests was what he described as “a certain level of uncalled for aggressiveness and that all PL supporters were bundled together without distinction”, a form of extremism which labels all indiscriminately. He said that with hindsight, those who were protesting were right on issues of corruption and on the persons who were under a cloud of allegations and yet were kept in office.
“There are many genuine Labour supporters and those who were under this cloud were betraying our trust in them. I was one of those who voted for Joseph Muscat as leader of the PL in 2008 but I feel that certain things which were done were a betrayal of trust,” said Zammit Marmarà.
PL in control
Zammit Marmaràsaid that the PL has a good control over its members and is being very careful not to repeat the incidents which had marked the 70s and 80s. “But in this country we still have to come to terms with the fact that everyone has a right to protest…there is a lot which still needs to be done in terms of education,” said Zammit Marmarà. He said that the civil society groups need to make an effort to show that they are open to members from the whole spectrum of politics and not be identified as anti-PL.
Zammit Marmarà had nothing but criticism for those who regularly filibuster any form of mature online discussion through trolling. “A lot remains to be done where education and political maturity are concerned,” said the columnist wryly. He said that the situation had improved under PM Robert Abela but much remains to be done. He said that freedom of expression does not mean insults and lies. He said that some comments under online articles are downright nasty.
Where has this led us?
Both Aquilina and Zammit Marmarà feel that the protests yielded important results for the democratic development of the country, much remains to be done. For Aquilina, the greatest stumbling block are the institutions, which, he insisted are not working towards the common good. He said that when government backbenchers are dependent on government for their sinecures and jobs, they will automatically be in conflict of interest since their job is to scrutinise the very authorities which they work in or for. He added that the MPs are also not taking their parliamentary work seriously and are falling short in their legislating skills. He said that the NGO was surprised at the amount of MPs who had no clue what they were voting on in parliament when the House was debating the appointment of the Chief Justice. “Many of the MPs have become pimps to their constituents’ demands and we need to embark on a serious reform process for parliament” said Aquilina.
Zammit Marmarà agreed on the issue of clientelism and said that the electoral system lends itself to this malaise. “I think that the chapter regarding Daphne Caruana Galizia needs to be closed as this is an open wound which affects all the country, Nationalists and Labourites alike,” said the columnist. He concluded that he was not entirely satisfied by the progress made on the case, expressing concern that conflicting testimonies may lead to a dubious verdict in court.