Malta: anti-corruption activist defies 'government-backed' online hate campaign

By Emil Weber

Maltese anti-corruption activist, Tina Urso, feels she has been targeted by a government- backed name-and-shame online campaign in recent months. She, her lawyer and media and human rights activists criticise the authorities responsible for investigating the threats.

Tina Urso Tina Urso (photo: private)

Urso is a member of the voluntary, grassroots group Il-Kenniesa active in raising anti-corruption awareness. "We started with Il-Kenniesa in June 2017 when the Government did not remove the ministers who were mentioned for wrongdoing in the 'Panama papers',” Urso told the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF).

Following a snap election in May 2017, the Labour Party of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat emerged victorious despite corruption allegations concerning his close associates and his wife. On 16 October 2017, renowned investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who had been writing about the allegations, was murdered. “After the murder of Daphne, we obviously started to focus more on that;” Urso says. “The government showed complete impunity in all matters that she had raised”.

Although three persons are being investigated through a court process, Caruana Galizia’s murder remains a mystery. A consortium of prestigious international media, led by Paris based Forbidden Stories, investigated the stories she was working on. has written that Caruana Galizia was a critic of a “cash-for-passport” scheme involving the company Hanley and Partners, a company that works as an agent for the Maltese Government. 

On 20 April 2018, Martina Urso was one of a group of Maltese protestors demonstrating against the Prime Minister’s participation in a Henley and Partners event in London. “We said we were ashamed that our PM was taking part in a Henley and Partners event”, Urso told ECPMF. “The oligarchs who are issued with Maltese citizenship (through the 'cash-for-passport' scheme), do not contribute to our economy and there is no proper background-check on them prior to receiving citizenship”. That's when the threats against her increased significantly.

Co-ordinated online misogynistic hate campaign

Daphne’s son, Andrew Caruana Galizia, speaking at the UN Human Rights Council in June 2018, said Urso and Caroline Muscat (editor-in-chief at The Shift News) “have been targeted in a state-sanctioned, co-ordinated online misogynistic hate campaign”. 

“As was the case for my mother Daphne Caruana Galizia, there has been no official response to the death threats received by these women human rights defenders”, Galizia said.

Pen International said the torrent of abuse included some from members of the Maltese Administration

“The propaganda machine is crazy in Malta," Tina Urso says. "There are these online hate groups, government endorsed, who say ‘let’s go and shame them (critics)’. They were sending Facebook posts, messages. It got very bad. There were many threats and harassments which I have documented. They published my ID number all over Facebook as well as my parents’ home address”.

The artistic director at the Valleta18 Foundation called her “a bitch” after the London protest, although he later publicly apologised for his words. The personal data published online were ultimately removed. But Urso says there is no progress in the investigation of the reported threats.

Carla Camilleri, Urso’s lawyer, says that she filed a complaint on 25 April 2018. “To date, we do not know whether anyone was interviewed by investigating officers or whether charges will be pressed at all”, she told ECPMF. “It is important to point out that although some posts were uploaded and shared by fake profiles, others were uploaded by easily identifiable individuals”.

We need to show citizens that they can’t be afraid

Camillieri adds that the threats were extremely serious. “What we find quite strange is that in other situations relating to online Facebook posts, the police acted quickly and charged the suspects within a day or two,”, naming the cases. “We question why the police are not using the same kind of zeal and expediency when the person filing the complaint is a civil society activist”. 

Sarah Clarke of PEN International says the Maltese authorities have positive obligations in law to investigate these violations and to provide an effective opportunity for human rights defenders like Tina Urso to complain and seek redress. “Furthermore, Malta must create an enabling environment in which human rights defenders, like Tina Urso, can effectively pursue their endeavour for the protection and realisation of human rights. This includes effective protection for these individuals”, Clarke told ECPMF.

Urso says the administration’s behaviour is not surprising to her. “The government operates with complete impunity and they do not even care”, she says. “Daphne was alone in her fight; we (Il-Kenniesa) want people to get together.  We need to empower citizens and show them that they can’t be afraid”.

The police and the government of Malta have not yet responded to questions raised by the ECPMF.

UPDATE: police responded on 3 August, 2018: 

Police says one person charged

On 3 August, 2018, the Malta Police Force told the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) that charges were pressed against one person in relation to Urso’s case.

“Charges against a person were issued, while further investigations are on-going," said Sloune Gatt Fabri of the Community and Media Relations Unit (CMRU). The police’s response was received sixteen days after the publication of the story; the police was first contacted on 11 July.

Charlene Cilia of the same police department, CMRU, told ECPMF on 8 August, 2018, that the police could not provide further details on the suspected criminal offence since the charges were not yet read out in the court, and details on the charged person.

Urso’s lawyer, Carla Camilleri, said neither her nor her client were informed of these developments.