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You can protest, you are free(ish)

Citizens protesting as EU Leaders of southern Mediterranean countries met in Malta on Friday. Photo: Occupy Justice

“Freedom of the press comes down to this: The sign that all is well is when journalists are allowed to say that all is well.”

This was written on a political cartoon displayed in the foyer of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. It’s obviously satirical, but it came to mind on Friday when Joseph Muscat turned to the leaders gathered in Malta for the South EU summit and said, “Here we are open in everything, in the skies, and in freedom of speech (sic)”.

Muscat was referring to a group of activists from Occupy Justice holding up banners behind a barricade some distance away from the EU Leaders.

The Prime Minister’s logic goes something like this:

  • Citizens are allowed to hold up banners and raise their voices;
  • People are not allowed to do that in countries that don’t tolerate freedom of speech;
  • Therefore, Malta has freedom of speech.

The fact that he has to turn to EU leaders to make this point is itself a sign of a problem.

Did you ever see German Chancellor Angela Merkel turn to French President Emmanuel Macron to point out the German State’s tolerance of freedom of speech? No, because it hasn’t been called into question.

It wasn’t just activists in Valletta who used the occasion to remind Muscat of his responsibilities. Seven international press freedom and human rights organisations also appealed to EU leaders to “address the ongoing impunity in the case of assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia”.

They were referring to the report by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Special Rapporteur Pieter Omtzigt which was adopted by the Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee meeting in Paris on 29 May.

The report is aimed at improving democracy and the rule of law in Malta. But rather than commit to an in-depth evaluation of its findings, the government remains focused on seeking new ways of undermining them.

In the lead up to the summit, Labour MP Manuel Mallia was caught sending a message to other MPs who form part of the Council of Europe delegation, urging them to use this opportunity to lobby against the report on Malta.

“Mini summit tomorrow (Friday) between six countries is fertile ground for lobbying against Omtzigt’s report. Anyone taking the lead?” Mallia wrote in his message. He deleted it soon after, but it was too late.

The message Labour MP Manuel Mallia sent to the group of MPs that form part of the delegation at the Council of Europe, was deleted soon after.

Mallia isn’t alone in adopting this strategy.

The Prime Minister has himself targeted the report’s author, repeatedly casting doubt on his integrity and credibility in Parliament and in meetings with Labour Party supporters.

But of course this is the kind of government that runs an extensive PR campaign to sell the line that it started implementing the recommendations of the Venice Commission less than 100 days after the report was published, only to be slammed by law professor Kevin Aquilina, who said the “government was deliberately acting in bad faith”.

The former Dean of the University of Malta’s Faculty of Laws said the Bill to establish the Office of the State Advocate was being falsely presented as the government’s intention to implement the Venice Commission’s recommendations, when in fact it was turning the report “on its head”.

Aquilina warned that the Bill was in breach of Malta’s international obligations, placing the country at loggerheads with the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights and the European Union.

It will also serve to concentrate more powers in the Office of the Prime Minister, “very much in the opposite direction of what the Venice Commission noted”.

Rather than take into account this expert opinion, the response of the Justice Minister was to hit at the credibility of one of our most respected law professors. In his statement, Owen Bonnici felt the need to point out that the legal arguments made by Aquilina were “repeated in Parliament by the Leader of the Opposition” as though this were some sort of political conspiracy.

You start to get an idea of why Aquilina is no longer Dean of the Faculty of Laws at the University of Malta despite his credentials. But he can express his views in the student association’s law journal. See, we have freedom of speech.

Joseph Muscat tells people one thing when he is clearly doing the opposite. But there’s no need to worry, because “everything is open in Malta, even the skies”.

That’s partly true. The heavens did open. But does he know it started pouring with rain?

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