In clear breach of the provisions of the electoral act, political parties forged ahead with their campaigns both on Friday and election day through heavy use of social media, particularly Facebook posts and sponsored adverts.
Contacted by The Sunday Times of Malta, Electoral Commission chairman Joseph Church said the matter had been referred to the police, who on their part wanted to know the date of publication of such adverts.
The Sunday Times sent the dates to the commission, although by the time of writing no such request had been received from the police.
Use of sponsored adverts was adopted with complete impunity by the two main political parties and some candidates vying to get elected to the European Parliament.
Until Saturday evening both the PN and PL Facebook pages showed they had a number of “active” adverts, meaning that these were still cropping up on the Facebook walls of private individuals.
In contrast, newspapers, radios and television stations had to strictly adhere to the ban by avoiding any form of political controversy for fear that this could be interpreted as an attempt to influence the electorate.
The General Election Act states clearly that no public meeting or public demonstration shall be held on the day immediately preceding the commencement of voting – Friday, also known as ‘reflection day’ – and on election day itself.
The ban also applies to print and broadcasting, specifically on “any matter likely to influence voters in the exercise of the franchise”.
Though the law, which was drafted in 1991 before the advent of the internet, makes no specific mention of social media, it is still enforceable on this platform as it also applies to “other means of communication to the public”.
Nonetheless, Facebook users were still being bombarded with all sorts of sponsored adverts and political content after midnight on Thursday, which was the official time when the ban came into force.
Ever since the emergence of social media as an effective campaigning tool, there have been calls to update electoral laws. One major justification for these changes was that enforcing the ban is virtually impossible, with hundreds of thousands of social media users.
However, failure by the legislators to enact the necessary changes means that by law anyone caught breaching such provisions is still liable to a fine of €1,164.69 or even imprisonment for a term no exceeding six months.
In 2013, slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was arrested in the middle of the night after the police turned up outside her residence in the wake of complaints that she had used her blog to influence voters during reflection day.
Following the same election, the police had also questioned Labour candidates Deborah Schembri, Helena Dalli and Charles Mangion. However, no charges were issued.
According to a Eurobarometer survey in 2018, about 80 per cent of the Maltese said they wanted the day of reflection respected on social media.
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