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In the name of free speech

owen bonnici
Justice Minister Owen Bonnici. Photo: Arno Mikkor

Over the weekend, Law Commissioner Franco Debono unleashed a few choice words on Prime Minister Joseph Muscat via his blog, calling him, among other things, the “most corrupt politician” in Malta’s history.

He also said the Prime Minister was not “particularly brilliant” and that Egrant either belonged to him or to someone very close to him. Nothing new, but the reaction of Justice Minister  Owen Bonnici provided some real jaw-dropping entertainment.

When asked for his reaction, Bonnici said Debono’s comments were a part of his “freedom of expression” and that he had nothing else to say on the matter. A refreshing approach you might think – no insults, no threats of legal action, and no political name calling is something of a rarity in the current political climate.

Of course, as we all know, Bonnici is a fervent advocate of “freedom of speech” and not just on this occasion either. When V18 Chairman Jason Micallef had caused a diplomatic rift between Malta and the Netherlands for mocking the last words of assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, Bonnici defend him saying: “I will not censor anyone for expressing his thoughts”.

Despite outrage in Malta, the twin Capital of Culture Friesland,  a letter of condemnation from PEN international signed by over 300 influential writers, as well as criticism from artists in Malta, Bonnici defended Micallef.

Yet it seems Bonnici is in favour of this concept of freedom of expression only when it suits him. He has led a war against the protest memorial for Caruana Galizia that sprung up outside the law courts shortly after her death. As an advocate for freedom of expression, Bonnici seems to have a major issue with members of the public expressing their right to protest and make their voice heard.

This is the same vocal advocate of freedom of expression who rejected a proposal to restrain the use of SLAPP law suits to silence and intimidate Maltese journalists. These law suits, filed in foreign jurisdictions, are chosen because it is too expensive a process for any journalist to mount a challenge. Bonnici said increasing protection for journalists in the country would infringe EU law, despite the European Commission saying this was not the case.

The Shift News, Daphne Caruana Galizia and most Maltese news portals have all been threatened with SLAPP suits from both Pilatus Bank and Henley & Partners.

Even Muscat, when asked about Debono’s comments, replied with a smirk and with the same weather worn, almost perfectly rehearsed and coordinated phrase – “freedom of expression” – before skulking off into the night.

This is the same man who is pursuing a dead journalist and blackmailing her family through the courts on charges of libel 15 months after Caruana Galizia was killed.

Freedom of expression is not something the government bestows – it is a right. Either you recognise this as a part of a functioning democracy or you don’t.

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