The dangers of crying wolf all too often

Ensuring the preservation of free speech is essential, yet we must not condone the fabrication and dissemination of falsehoods aimed at harming individuals, institutions, and causes.

In a village, there was a young shepherd boy tasked with watching over a flock of sheep. One day, the boy decided to play a prank on the villagers. He climbed to the top of a hill and shouted, “Wolf! Wolf! The wolf is attacking the sheep!”

You probably know the rest.

There’s been a series of episodes in Malta over the past few months alone, in which “wolf!” has been cried with no founded reason. The outcome can be as serious as the sad end to Aesop’s fable.

One should not shy away from crying wolf when there is, indeed, a wolf. Politicians should be held responsible and scrutinised. In fact, the Standards in Public Life Act was enshrined in Maltese law in 2018 in order to provide for the appointment of a Commissioner and a Standing Committee, with power to investigate breaches of statutory or ethical duties of categories of persons in public life.

However, there’s a fine line between holding politicians accountable and acting downright suspicious towards them without founded reason. That fine line has been crossed yet again, at the expense of many precious resources, namely time, money, and public perception. It is important to recognise that inciting a sense of mistrust without providing compelling evidence can potentially weaken the foundations of democratic governance and societal stability.

The Chris Bonett case

The Commissioner for Standards in Public Life has dismissed a case related to a complaint about Air Malta allegedly displacing passengers to accommodate Parliamentary Secretary Chris Bonett. 

The inquiry, initiated by Prof. Arnold Cassola last January, was based on information that passengers on flight KM116 to London Gatwick Airport were asked to move to make room for Bonett and his family. The investigation uncovered a glitch in Air Malta’s online platform, where the system failed to recognise Bonett’s preferred seat selection – he booked four adjacent seats online since he and his wife were travelling with their two young children. Consequently, the Commissioner concluded that Cassola’s complaint lacked merit, attributing the issue to a technical glitch. Allegation unfounded, case closed.

The Owen Bonnici and Julia Farrugia case

A recent report from the Permanent Commission Against Corruption refuted allegations from a French news programme, labelling them as baseless lies. The programme claimed preferential treatment for a private law firm in citizenship-by-investment, alleging ties to Ministers Julia Farrugia Portelli and Minister Owen Bonnici.

The Permanent Commission Against Corruption’s report dismissed these claims, stating that the firm received no special treatment, as alleged. It found that the alleged friendships between the firm and the Ministers were so minimal that they were insignificant. Additionally, the report observed that the citizenship process undergoes a rigorous four-stage analysis and concluded that the allegations were a lie.

The Michael Farrugia case

The Permanent Commission Against Corruption has recently also absolved former Minister Michael Farrugia over a meeting with businessman Yorgen Fenech, after it was asked to investigate the matter. The Commission said it was satisfied that the two had discussed Portomaso during a 2014 meeting, and not plans to allow high-rise developments in Mrieħel.

The Commission ruled that Farrugia had not gained anything from including Mrieħel in a government policy on high-rise buildings in 2014, while developers Fenech and Gasan had to lose with the new policy. Farrugia, who was politically responsible for planning at the time, was therefore absolved by the commission. Once again, the commission had been asked to probe the matter by Prof. Arnold Cassola.

The Clint Camilleri case

Last August, the Standards Commissioner dismissed allegations of ethical breaches against Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri, made by Prof. Arnold Cassola in 2021. The complaint involved alleged unauthorised works in a Natura 2000 site benefiting Comino service providers linked to Camilleri’s electoral campaign.  The Commissioner determined that it was the Planning Authority that had granted permits for the works, emphasising Camilleri’s lack of jurisdiction over the Authority’s decisions.

The perils of disseminating false claims

While all these cases make for good anecdotes and serve to highlight the fact that “institutions are working”, they also represent an enormous amount of time, resource and, therefore, money being allocated towards less than qualitative reasons.

Ensuring the preservation of free speech is essential, yet we must not condone the fabrication and dissemination of falsehoods aimed at harming individuals, institutions, and causes. Such unsubstantiated claims may discourage capable individuals from entering the world of politics. Not to mention that, if politicians are constantly under a cloud of suspicion, it can impede their ability to govern effectively. They may become overly cautious in decision-making, fearing backlash even when their actions are in the public interest.

By encouraging an “us versus them” mentality towards our politicians, we are only getting in the way of constructive dialogue.

Let’s face it: what we all really want is for policymakers to address complex issues that our country is facing. Such issues require bipartisan support that can never be inspired from a hostile environment and a distorted narrative.

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