The police have objected to ten protest applications citing legal notices on the suspension of organised events since March last year, a police spokesman said in an emailed response to questions from The Shift.
Veteran lawyer Tonio Borg has previously told The Shift that the way authorities cited legal notices contravened Article 42 of the Maltese constitution, which protects the right to freely assemble in protest even in extraordinary public health circumstances, especially so if extra steps are taken to observe standard COVID protocols such as social distancing and the use of masks.
The absence of mass protests in a year peppered with government-related scandals suggest that COVID restrictions have been used to stifle mass protests, a convenient tool at the disposal of a government under whose watch Malta keeps declining in international transparency and anti-corruption rankings.
Of the ten demonstrations that made headlines since the start of the COVID pandemic, the only ones that failed to adequately obey public health recommendations were protests organised by ‘COVID skeptics’, individuals whose statements were quickly disowned by the health authorities.
Organisations that were the main driving forces behind several mass protests confirmed they’d exercised restraint as a result of COVID restrictions as well as direct interference from the police force, and were therefore questioning the authority’s use of legal notices, The Shift reported on 12 July.
Clayton Mercieca from Allied Rainbow Communities told The Shift then that when they requested permission to hold a vigil “the police asked us whether we were going to be holding placards and giving speeches”. This in spite of the fact that the organisation had clearly explained the event was to be a strictly-controlled vigil in remembrance of Samuel Luiz, a man who was killed in a homophobic hate crime.
No clear explanation for the objection beyond the legal notice was provided. No explanation was given for the fact that the most recent legal notice published by the government does allow “organised events in a controlled manner”.
The Malta Entertainment Industry Association had also organised a protest to call for the controlled re-opening of the arts scene, only to be thwarted by a letter from an assistant police commissioner who objected to their demonstration. Similarly, the association also had made extensive plans to cater for COVID restrictions, but nonetheless scrapped its plans to avoid being fined €6,000 per person.
NGOs and individuals did manage, on a few occasions in which restrictions were relaxed, to protest against the government over major issues such as the Miżieb and Aħrax land-grabs or the government’s handling of the pandemic itself.
The organisers said the events were nonetheless held with strict adherence to public health standards, and none of the demonstrations numbered more than 300 people, a stark contrast with environmental protests that attracted thousands of people in 2019.
The admission from the police that they had objected to ten protests suggests that despite following the rules, the general public was not permitted to dissent via public demonstrations.
Given the public’s right to assembly as enshrined by the constitution of Malta, the police rarely if ever object to public gatherings. As such, the corps do not have the right to outright block a protest, but the chilling effect achieved by the objection letters and the overall fear of official backlash for flouting regulations have led to de-facto bans regardless.
Suspension of organised events
In its reply to questions sent by The Shift, the police force referred to five legal notices which were cited in their objections: 205/20, 78/21, 141/21, 224/21 and 273/21 (click this link for a searchable database).
On 21 May of last year, superintendent of public health Charmaine Gauci prohibited all organised events except for sports activities that adhered to COVID protocols. Groups no larger than six people at a time were allowed, severely restricting the right to assembly.
Back then, COVID cases in Malta were still under control, and the country had not yet faced its first major wave, with a 52-case spike in April being the most significant uptick in the first three months of the pandemic.
In spite of the restriction on mass events, the legal notice issued at the time (205/20) had allowed for exemptions which could be obtained from the office of the superintendent of public health, pending the superintendent’s verdict.
Both Malta and other countries across the EU faced partial or total lockdowns as the streets lay deserted while the world grappled with the measures taken to try and contain the pandemic.
But with mass protests and street demonstrations erupting across the globe, after lockdowns and other COVID restrictions resulted in a build-up of frustration in several major cities.
EU countries such as France, Italy, Spain, the Czech Republic, Germany and Poland all faced massive protests that attracted thousands of people, highlighting the disparities between Malta and other nations as freedom of expression in the local context declined.
While some of the protests were centred around political bones of contention such as the Polish government’s crackdown on LGBT+ groups and reproductive rights advocates, many of the major protests were aimed at COVID restrictions.
Countries such as Russia, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Belarus also saw major anti-government protests either in support of figures such as Russia’s staunch Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny or against figures such as Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
While protesters in some countries were seen wearing face masks, it was evident that few adhered to social distancing and other measures introduced in the battle against the pandemic, with the difference in the scale of the protests in Malta and other countries being rendered visible.
In spite of soaring COVID cases in October of last year, Malta’s dry protest scene picked up some momentum, with the Aħrax and Miżieb demonstrations followed by Repubblika’s symbolic demonstration in mid-November.
December of last year saw a protest in Sliema when dozens of Balluta residents gathered to demonstrate against a permit granted to Fortina group to occupy a large part of the public beach with a pontoon for its ferry operations. Repubblika, together with Occupy Justice and Manuel Delia, organised a socially-distanced, seated protest on 1 March.
While the protests didn’t reach anywhere near the scale seen in other countries, on 5 March of this year additional tight restrictions were introduced that further stifled any momentum.
Three legal notices, 78/21, 141/21 and 224/21, were all published between March and May, after COVID-19 cases reached the highest ever peak on 16 March with 313 cases found overnight.
In March, all organised events bar religious activities and weddings were prohibited, with any organisers found in breach liable for a €6,000 fine.
5 July then saw a minor relaxation of the restrictions on mass events, with an additional category of “events organised in a controlled manner” being allowed.