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Public roles and private rants

tony zarb

In an ideal world, you can say whatever you want and no one will hold you responsible.

You can say tigers are blue. You can say girls stink. You can even call someone terrible names. Yes, we used to get spanked for that, but these days you get something called a “time out” where you have to stand in a corner and feel shame.

That ideal world does exist. It’s called kindergarten.

But you don’t have to lose the privilege of spouting off after kindergarten graduation. There’s a parallel universe where you can say whatever you want and call it “freedom of expression.” It’s a little island off North Africa where every politician is a ‘Doctor’, and where public officials are never held accountable, but they’re always very well paid.

It sure doesn’t work like that where I come from.

In what we call “normal, functioning western democracies”, there’s a very clear difference between a public person and a private individual.

For example, if the Director of the Canada Council for the Arts voices his opinion in public, whether to a newspaper or on social media, that is taken as a statement from the Director of the Canada Arts Council, and not from a guy called Simon Brault.

In other words, his statement reflects official government policy.

If that public figure were to, say, mock the last words of a murdered journalist, the entire Canada Council for the Arts would be seen by the public as having this view. If that were not the case — if this individual was in fact spouting off, the Director of the Canada Council for the Arts would be told to apologise to the nation and resign immediately.

No, it isn’t a matter of freedom of expression. Not when what you say is seen to emanate from the government, and to reflect that government’s policy.

The head of the Canada Council for the Arts can of course have personal opinions, and he can share them all he wants with his friends and family. But I wouldn’t recommend sharing them at cocktail parties — it’s bound to leak out, and Brault would still be held responsible regardless.

That’s because public figures give up the right to broadcast their personal opinions in public when they accept a high level public sector job, and this remains true for the duration of their appointment.

But not, of course, in Malta.

When the rest of the world saw the chairman of Valletta 2018, Jason Micallef, mocking the last words of a murdered journalist, and when the government of Malta didn’t demand his resignation but instead defended him, then Micallef’s words were rightly interpreted by the rest of the world as the official policy of the Government of Malta.

When Justice and Culture Minister Owen Bonnici claimed he was helpless to reprimand Micallef because Micallef was simply exercising his right to free expression, Bonnici was being disingenuous.

It isn’t that the Minister of Justice and Culture doesn’t know his job. He’s one of those Doctors, after all.

No, Bonnici was just trying to have it both ways.

I mean, he couldn’t come out and tell his EU counterparts that yes, his government and his political party loathed Caruana Galizia, and they intend to do everything they can to eradicate her memory. So he tries to hide behind the right to free expression and the rule of law, instead.

No one outside Malta is fooled by this.

Foreign journalists saw through it. Ulrich Fuchs, one of the committee members who chose Valletta as European Capital of Culture, saw through it. Valletta Mayor Alexei Dingli saw through it. And the team behind Valletta 2018’s EU Capital of Culture sister city Leeuwarden-Fryslân saw through it. That’s why they all refused to have anything to do with what should have been a celebration of Maltese culture.

What a sad — and completely avoidable — humiliation for Malta.

The European Capital of Culture was a wonderful opportunity to build a rich foundation for the arts in Malta, and an opportunity to shine a spotlight on Valletta, one of the true gems of the Mediterranean.

But Leeuwarden-Fryslân 2018 wasn’t just shunning Micallef by this unprecedented boycott. The foundation was distancing itself from the government of Malta, because using one’s public, official platform to voice that government’s hatred of a journalist who held them to account does not reflect European values.

So, Bonnici is not fooling anyone. You know very well that the same rules don’t apply while someone is a public official, and that those who represent the public must be impartial.

But don’t worry, you aren’t alone. When the Malta police refuses to dismiss a serving police officer for celebrating Caruana Galizia’s murder, the Malta police is condoning his view.

Something similar happened in the US last February. A police officer in Nashville posted a Facebook comment about how he would have shot motorist Philando Castile five times instead of four. Castile had been killed the previous July when he was shot during a routine traffic stop in Minnesota.

Do you know what happened to the Nashville police officer? He was held accountable and fired — even in Donald Trump’s dysfunctional America.

That police officer wasn’t expressing his right to free speech. He was demonstrating that he is unfit to serve the public in a job which requires him to set aside his personal opinions and be impartial in upholding the laws.

Too bad he wasn’t in Malta. He could have laid low for a year on half-pay suspension while watching daytime talk shows.

When a washed up former union boss throws a hissy fit at a group of female protesters because they had the nerve to disagree with his views and say so, does anyone from the government of Malta say, “Now, now, Tony… Maybe you need a time out…”? No. They reward him with a bloated consultancy fee under the Tourism Ministry instead.

The government wants its angry supporters to know that its official policy is to dish out hate on anyone who dares to oppose it, and who dares to expose its shady deals, its outright theft, its graft and rampant illegalities.

But shhh…. don’t tell the EU or they might cut your funding. Quick, send in Bonnici and tell him to shrug at them.

“What can we do? Our hands are tied.” That’s the way a coward acts.

Malta sure has come a long way.

There was a time when the world admired the bravery of an island people who stood defiant in the face of Nazi Germany. The nation that refused to crumble when hit with overwhelming force. The island whose name became a legend and whose people were awarded the George Cross for bravery.

Now the leaders of that same nation — supposedly the best among Malta’s face to the world — run from accountability, mock a murdered journalist, and sell Europe for cash while bragging about how clever they are.

Please, let’s stop pretending that we can’t see the difference between public and private roles, and the expectations accorded to each.

We accept such behaviour from children because they don’t know any better. But when an adult plays games like that, they do know better. They’re simply lying.

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