Updated to include reaction from CEO of Leeuwarden Friesland F2018 Tjeerd van Bekkum following the meeting.
Justice Minister Owen Bonnici refused to denounce comments made by Valletta 2018 chairman Jason Micallef despite repeated appeals for “bridges to be built” during a live press conference from Friesland, Valletta 2018’s twin culture capital.
Bonnici kept insisting that Micallef’s comments about assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia were not hate speech but “freedom of expression”. This led to the CEO of Leeuwarden Friesland F2018 Tjeerd van Bekkum to point out that freedom of speech comes with responsibility.
“It is undeniable there is an atmosphere of unsafety. Don’t you feel a responsibility to make a statement? There is freedom of speech, and then there is responsibility. Why don’t you build that bridge?” van Bekkum said.
Bonnici repeated that he was not going to order people on the way they thought or expressed themselves. He pointed out that he always appealed for prudence in the way public officials spoke but “I will not censor anyone for expressing his thoughts”.
Speaking of himself in the third person, the Justice Minister said: “Owen Bonnici will never fire someone for expressing themselves, even though they should be more prudent”.
The press conference was led by journalist Asing Walthaus from Leeuwarder Courant. After the conference, van Bekkum did not mince his words on the lack of progress following the meeting. He told Leeuwarder Courant: “We just need more.”
He spoke about “an abrasive issue”. Referring to Micallef, he said: “I’m not going to ask for heads to roll. I ask for attitude and behaviour. If that does not change, there will be no movement”.
Bonnici was repeatedly challenged on the investigation into Caruana Galizia’s assassination, to which Bonnici said the government “had left no stone unturned”.
“In less than 50 days, 10 men were arrested and three charged in relation to the murder, and legal proceedings are moving very rapidly. Investigations are also going strong to discover who was behind the murder,” Bonnici said, despite criticism from civil society on delays in the investigation.
Remarkably, Bonnici also said he was aware the investigators were being showered with praise, “even by the [Caruana Galizia] family”.
Yet, the family has regularly voiced criticism of the government’s handling of the investigation.
Bonnici did not get away with this lightly. “You make it seem as though everything is fine. Then, why did the Council of Europe get involved? Why did the European Commission and the European Parliament get involved? Even Europol doesn’t agree with what you just said,” Peter Abspoel, board member of PEN Netherlands told Bonnici.
The dispute between the two foundations started last April when Friesland decided not to send any official representatives to Malta until V18 “distanced itself from their offensive tone which refers, most notably, to the relatives of the murdered journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia,” it had said in a statement.
Relations became so strained that a junior coalition partner in the Netherlands government called on Foreign Minister Stef Blok to put pressure on the Maltese government to apologise for Micallef’s statements.
They were referring to comments made by Micallef who spoke out against plans to turn the makeshift memorial to Caruana Galizia, in front of the Great Siege Monument in Valletta, into something more permanent. Micallef has also called for the removal of banners in public areas on the day marking her assassination to be removed.
Journalists also confronted Bonnici on Micallef’s use of the St Patrick’s Day crowd to mock Caruana Galizia’s last words.
Dutch deputy for culture of the Province of Friesland Sietske Poepjes pointed out that similar comments would have caused “an awful lot of trouble from the public and politicians” had these been said in the Netherlands. She said this may be because “their mindset was different as they believed in dialogue. I do not think that any member of the board would have been able to keep their position”.
Poepjes had published a screenshot of a text message sent to Bonnici, when he was going to visit Friesland as there were questions about the visit and freedom of press in Malta.
Bonnici praised Micallef’s work within Valletta 2018, saying he was doing a “brilliant job”. However, when it was pointed out that taking a stand against his comments was not censoring him but “a matter of common decency”, Bonnici stuck to his line.
Bonnici was also questioned on his refusal to take up the Opposition’s proposed anti-SLAPP amendment to the New Media Bill. The Justice Minister said, “Malta has the most progressive media law in Europe”.
He repeated his argument in Parliament that legislating against SLAPP would be in breach of EU law, even though last month European Commissioner for Justice Vera Jourová said there was nothing stopping Malta from introducing such a law.
On Friday, The Shift News will be publishing an interview with European Commissioner for Justice Vera Jourová.