Sofia wins

▪️ Sofia wins ▪️ SLAPP ▪️ Fr Hilary and my funeral ▪️ Special needs

Jean Paul Sofia is dead, but he lives on.  His courageous mother Isabelle defied the State, various State institutions, and the Government and won big time.  But she still has work to do.  My advice to her is: do not take anything for granted.  In victory there may yet be defeat.  I say it because I know it: people in power and their ‘uncivil’ servants often say “watch my mouth” but fully intend to do otherwise.

Hats off to the public inquiry led by retired Judge Joseph Zammit McKeon for uncovering the multiple failings in many authorities   ̶   what it described as a “comedy of errors” within construction site legislation.  I would call it the “disaster-in-waiting” that killed her 20-year-old son.

The inquiry board said officials at Malta Enterprise, INDIS, and the OHSA should “consider their positions”.  One chairman resigned straightaway, even before the Prime Minister called for resignations, of which there have been several.

People were stunned to learn that the report was 484 pages long.  Not that it matters, though documenting as much as possible the failures was a must.  What stands out is that the State has been held responsible.  I know that I may frequently sound as having lost all hope, but the increasing enthusiasm by public inquiries and the Courts to name and shame the State and its institutions is a positive sign.

I do not intend to go into the litany of failures, the incompetence of certain officials, the inadequacy of government structures, the loose legislation, lack of enforcement, and the feasting of board members who were in it just for the fees and influence.  Those are scandals in their own way.   

The inquiry also noted that “the broader government apparatus” was to blame for having allowed a legislative mess to develop over the years.   We all know what that means, but the broad wording also means that a number of people who were clearly responsible for the mess will escape.  Sacrificing the sheep so that the shepherds can survive is a well-known proclivity of politicians. 

More broadly, whether the government and its institutions have learned the lesson is still a question.  First, we have to see whether the promised legislative and structural changes will be robust, since they have a habit of being watered down after the concept stage.  Then we will await the appointment of new people to run the institutions concerned   ̶   it is not a foregone conclusion that they will be more competent than the previous ones or that there won’t be more chiefs than Indians.  The other hurdle will be whether the institutions will have the proper financial and human resources or will continue to be starved of them. 

Now, if anybody wants to make sure that all this happens, perhaps Isabelle Bonnici should be appointed to monitor the whole process, reporting to the President or the Speaker.  She, for sure, has a proven track record!

SLAPP

 In 2023, 99 journalists and media workers were killed worldwide, three-quarters of whom in the Israel-Gaza war   ̶   the majority of them Palestinians.  The conflict claimed the lives of more journalists in three months than have ever been killed in a single country over an entire year.  Once the deaths in Gaza, Israel, and Lebanon were excluded, the global number of 2023 journalist killings dropped markedly compared to 2022.

However, analysis of the data by the Committee to Protect Journalists found that journalism has not become safer in other parts of the world   ̶   320 journalists are currently imprisoned for their work.  Authoritarianism is still entrenched globally, with governments emboldened to stamp out critical reporting and prevent public accountability.

Where governments don’t kill or get journalists killed on commission, it is not that the situation is necessarily better.  Obstructionism, dissuasion, and denial of information to which the public is entitled are all tools in the vast arsenal of governments everywhere in their attempt to cover up scandals, lack of governance, and malfeasance.

The European Parliament recently voted in favour of a proposed directive commonly known as ‘Daphne’s Law’ that will protect journalists and human rights activists from abusive cross border civil proceedings, known as strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs). Over 87% of the MEPs, including all six Maltese MEPs, voted in favour of the Directive.  Some 47 MEPs, chiefly from the far-right and non-aligned members, voted against.

The Directive enables judges to identify SLAPPs and order their early dismissal, sparing the journalists or activists targeted by such proceedings the need to defend the manifestly unfounded claim brought against them in bad faith with the sole purpose of harassing them.  Malta, like all EU member states, has two years to implement the law, that is by 2026.  The European Commission also issued a Recommendation which makes it clear that the provisions of the Directive should also be applied to purely domestic cases.

In September 2021, Malta had promised to enact an anti-SLAPP law, but signally failed to honour its promise.  Thank God for the EU.  Let’s have more intrusive actions from the EU   ̶   many times, it seems to be the only way that this country can advance.

SLAPP lawsuits are a threat to the rule of law and seriously undermine the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, information, and association. They are a form of legal harassment and an abuse of the justice system, increasingly used by powerful governments, individuals, and organisations to avoid public scrutiny. This directive will help fight SLAPPs, stopping people from using the courts to intimidate and deter journalists and activists from making information public and enforcing a kind of self-censorship.

Fr Hilary and my funeral

A few weeks ago, it was claimed on Facebook posts that Fr Hilary Tagliaferro had said, in a newspaper interview, that poverty now is worse than it was during the Second World War.  Some others retorted that his comment had been misinterpreted.  Now Fr Hilary has confirmed that his comment was “slightly misinterpreted”. 

What Fr Hilary meant was that “it is not that poverty nowadays is as widespread as during the war – many people are not poor nowadays – but the situation for those who are poor resembles wartime poverty.”  

Of course, having people in poverty in this day and age is not on.  With GDP growth still galloping, there is absolutely no reason why there should be anybody not having food to eat.  There are ample resources to do this; it is just that it isn’t as much a priority as, for example, a film festival.  

On a completely separate note, Fr Hilary will surely not blame me if I tell my children not to ask him to conduct my funeral mass.  Having read, in the same interview, how he got the names of two persons wrong at their funeral masses and only realised his gaffe when they walked up to him, I wouldn’t want to cause him further embarrassment were he to accidentally make a eulogy for a living man, rather than for me.

Special needs

I was reading recently that the Swiss teachers’ association has warned that inclusive schooling in Switzerland is reaching a breaking point.  The association’s president, Dagmar Rösler, said that more resources were needed to enable students with special needs to succeed in mainstream classes.  She claimed that, considering the wide variety of needs and demands that can be found in a class today, each classroom needed to have two permanent specialists.

Apart from complaining about the number of special needs teachers, Rösler said that half of them had not even had the appropriate training, not to mention that unqualified school assistants were also responsible for looking after children with behavioural problems.

Not having become Switzerland in the Mediterranean doesn’t mean that we don’t have similar problems in Malta.  Parents here too   ̶   specifically at the San Ġorg Preca College Guardian Angel Resource Centre in Ħamrun   ̶   had complained about the LSE-student ratio at the centre for children with severe learning difficulties.

The issues they highlighted concern the physical and personnel resources available at the school.  Parents who spoke to the Times of Malta said that there were children who, according to the statementing board, were meant to have one Learning Support Educator with them, whereas the resource centre only provides three LSEs for every eight students.

Emma McEwen, the mother of one such student, complained that her son had enjoyed a one-to-one ratio in a mainstream private and then government school, but lost it when he started going to the centre.  Her son is on the autism spectrum, being almost non-verbal and with “behaviours which communicate unmet needs”.  She also mentioned other issues, such as the lack of IT or music teachers, no full-time speech therapist, no full-time occupational therapist, no calm room, no behavioural therapist and, in general, not enough staff.

Several other parents who spoke to the Times of Malta had a litany of inadequacies, staff shortages, shortcomings, and severe lack of communication between the management and the parents.  The parents were loath to blame the staff at the centre since these were overwhelmed and could not cope. 

Photo: Shutterstock.com

On the other hand, the Education Ministry has insisted that the centre has a full complement of LSEs and the student-to-LSE ratio is two to one.  It added that LSEs receive ongoing training from professionals like behaviour therapists and occupational therapists, ensuring they are well-equipped to support children with severe disabilities.  The Malta Union of Teachers described the parents’ criticism as “a concerted attack” on the school and its educators.

Omar Farrugia, president of the Autism Parents Association (APA), speaking to The Malta Independent says that “there is no secret that every year the Education Ministry is inundated with new cases [of children with learning disabilities] and there is a constant need of LSEs, but the situation stays futile, and they must find workaround to address certain needs.”

Meanwhile, the Malta Employers’ Association has called on the state not to give in to “pressure” by the Malta Union of Teachers to employ additional Learning Support Assistants (LSAs).  According to the MEA, the number of LSAs in schools has mushroomed “beyond control” over the years and the criteria for increasing this number should be based on whether there is actually a need for more LSAs, and “whether they are affordable given the state of public finances”.   The MUT has been calling on the Ministry of Education to recruit more qualified LSAs.

The Education Ministry believes that the National Strategy for Education, which is in its final consultation phase, will “transform” the sector and will cover all its needs.  To me, this sounds like a tacit acknowledgment that not all the sector’s needs are currently met, further reinforced by the fact that a fact-finding board had been appointed to evaluate the actual situation inside the school and provide recommendations by the end of February.

But, rather than apportioning blame, the focus should be on the different stakeholders working on future frameworks and programmes which deliver commonly-agreed objectives.  When controversies of the type I mentioned above break out, rest assured that it is because of lack of adequate consultation.

Main photo: Marc Galdes/The Malta Independent

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