The non-violent direct action carried out by Kamp Emerġenza Ambjent (KEA) at Manoel Island was a welcome breath of fresh air in terms of environmental politics in this country.
The KEA activists basically enabled access to the foreshore of Manoel Island. The foreshore is public, yet access to it has been sealed by the developers, MIDI.
Apart from access to the lovely beach at Manoel Island in this specific case, this type of activism has two major impacts.
First of all, through colourful and spectacular action, it can raise public awareness on certain issues.
This does not mean that direct action will always enjoy such public support. But in the case of Manoel Island, the support was widespread. The island has been rendered to a glorified junk yard, with MIDI’s property sealed off amid a lack of social responsibility. One needn’t be a radical environmentalist to have rage against such parcelling out of Malta’s heritage and public domain.
The second major impact of such activism is internal. Even if a specific campaign is not won, a sense of belonging can be created among activists. If this proves to be resilient to internal and external challenges, it can help create a stronger environmentalist community.
Another interesting dimension of environmental activism is the way in which it is portrayed by the media in Malta’s present political context.
The independent media generally has favourable coverage of different types of environmental activism, whether it comes from KEA or from more moderate ENGOs such as Din l-Art Ħelwa. Independent media also plays an instrumental role in raising awareness and reporting on various environmental issues. Malta’s largest ever environmental protest – the one organised by Front Ħarsien ODZ in 2015 –benefitted from favourable coverage from such media. This included constant coverage in the run up to the actual protest.
What really struck me with regard to KEA’s opening up of Manoel Island was the favourable coverage it obtained from state television and Labour media
Then there is the media owned by the Nationalist Party. Whether out of conviction or out of political opportunism, this media is also giving much coverage to environmental activism. A similar stance was adopted by the Labour Party media when the reds were in opposition. In both cases, media coverage did not always tally with what the respective political masters were promising to different interest groups.
What really struck me with regard to KEA’s opening up of Manoel Island was the favourable coverage it obtained from state television and Labour media (including the media of the GWU). The activists were portrayed positively and as being in the good company of the Labour mayor of Gżira.
Maybe one can argue that the appointment of John Bundy as CEO at PBS represents a culture change in the reporting of such activism. Or that the inews portal is realising that the environment matters to many voters, including those who thought that Labour would improve green governance.
Will such positive coverage by Labour-friendly media persist in other environmental issues? If yes, we would suddenly be experiencing a move away from the recent negative portrayal of environmentalists by Labour spin-doctors. We all know the untruthful tune of this tactic: environmental activism was inexistent under previous administrations, environmentalists are blue secret agents, and so forth.
This takes us to a more critical – and cynical – reading of the sudden interest in Manoel Island by the Labour-friendly media. And here one should really keep in mind that Joseph Muscat’s Labour Party is a master of media strategy.
What if the Manoel Island activism was used by such media as a decoy to steer away attention from other issues which are subject to imminent decisions? These may include the Mrieħel and Townsquare controversies. Both will very soon be subject to appeals by ENGOs, and in the case of the latter, also by Sliema local council and the Environment Resources Authority.
Which reminds me of Trojan horses. As the saying goes, beware gifts from the Greeks.
If the government supports the demands of such activism, and if it really wants to give a genuine gift to the public, it has the opportunity to do so. How about actually guaranteeing public access to the foreshore all around Malta, as enshrined in Malta’s law?
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.