Justice Minister Owen Bonnici will not sack Valletta 2018 chairman Jason Micallef or demand his resignation not because he fears Micallef’s “censorship” but because he knows, “as we all do”, that Micallef will not go quietly, said Daphne Caruana Galizia’s sister, Corinne Vella, following his comments at press conference in Friesland, Valletta 2018’s twin culture capital.
Speaking to The Shift News after Bonnici refused to denounce comments made by Micallef that led to a rupture of relations with Valletta 2018’s twin capital of culture, Vella said: “The price for retaining the V18 chairman is the failure of the European Capital of Culture Project and international vilification for Malta”.
Bonnici attended a live press conference in Friesland on Thursday to “settle matters” between the two European Capitals of Culture after relations broke down following comments Micallef made on Caruana Galizia following her death, and concerns on press freedom in Malta.
PEN International, which recently called on Maltese authorities to sanction “senior public officials” who openly threaten values of democracy, freedom of expression and rule of law, also criticised Bonnici for his comments during the conference. Speaking to The Shift News, the international organisation reminded the Maltese government it had a duty to uphold freedom of expression, but pointed out that public authorities – such as a Chairman of a Capital of Culture – are held to a higher standard both in terms of the public comments they make and the level of scrutiny they can expect.
Relations between the twin Capitals of Culture 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.
Read more: V18 chairman causes diplomatic rift
Yet during the press conference, Bonnici did not settle anything, as he kept insisting that Micallef’s comments about Caruana Galizia were not hate speech but “freedom of expression”. The Justice Minister was challenged particularly on Micallef’s Facebook post showing crowds of the streets on St Patrick’s Day in which he mocked Caruana Galizia’s last words.
“Bonnici endorses Micallef’s mockery of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s last words, misleads his audience about his own role in repressing journalism freedom generally and Daphne Caruana Galizia in particular, and deliberately misquotes family members in his own defence as Justice Minister. He cannot respond credibly to accusations of State failure because he himself is part of it,” Vella said.
She was reacting to a comment made by the Justice Minister saying “investigators were being showered with praise, even by the [Caruana Galizia] family,” despite the family’s public criticism of the government’s handling of the investigation.
“Bonnici says that he will not censor Jason Micallef by removing him from his post. Apart from the behaviour that has led to more than 250 writers around the world to call for his resignation, Micallef should be removed because he is inept. He has no understanding of his role and his malicious and ignorant behaviour has led Leeuwarden 2018 to rupture relations with V18, defeating the very purpose of the European Capital of Culture project,” Vella said.
The CEO of Leeuwarden Friesland F2018 Tjeerd van Bekkum gave a similar reaction following the conference. Speaking 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”.
Vella did not mince her words on what many in Malta believe but most will not say. “Bonnici will not sack Micallef or demand his resignation not because he fears Micallef’s “censorship” but because he knows, as we all do, that Micallef will not go quietly… Micallef is clearly not worth it. So what is Bonnici hiding, and why?” she said.
Caruana Galizia’s son, Matthew, also commented on Twitter that the Justice Minister got a lesson in democracy: “Bonnici’s defence of Micallef is idiotic. Of course we are all free to express ourselves. But if you say something deeply stupid, people rightly question your authority.” A reply to the tweet cited case law that countered Bonnici’s position.
Harsh criticism came also from the Executive Director of PEN International, Carles Torner, who told The Shift News:
“Almost nine months after the brutal assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, there is still impunity for this horrendous crime. The Minister’s comments [on Thursday] signal that there has been no accountability for the Chair of Valletta 2018 whose behaviour has been completely at odds with his role of safeguarding freedom of expression and culture.
“We call on the Maltese authorities to implement their professed commitment to European values and sanction senior public officials who openly threaten the values of democracy, freedom of expression and the rule of law”.
PEN International, in conjunction with PEN Netherlands, reminded the Maltese government that it had a positive obligation to uphold freedom of expression, including promoting, protecting and supporting a diverse media and independent journalism.
“It is well-established in international law that public authorities – such as a Chairman of a Capital of Culture – have a particular role in this and are held to a higher standard both in terms of the public comments they make and the level of scrutiny they can expect. Statements which denigrate, intimidate or even threaten the media have a serious chilling effect on free speech. We continue to be concerned about the current situation in Malta”.