A conference about combatting and preventing hate speech held this morning featured a surprising keynote speaker: a PL government minister found guilty of breaching fundamental human rights on freedom of expression.
Former education minister and former Justice Minister Owen Bonnici has never yet apologised for having robbed activists protesting for justice for assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia of their right to free speech by ordering his minions to clear the protest memorial to Caruana Galizia on a nightly basis for two years.
Indeed, the attempt to wipe out the protestors’ presence every day only ended after the courts condemned Bonnici for his actions and ordered him to stop.
So it was somewhat bizarre that the EU Commission, the German Embassy and the Conference on the Future of Europe, who organised the event, decided to invite Bonnici to give the keynote address on the topic of combatting hate speech.
Caruana Galizia’s assassination was enabled by the climate of impunity created by the PL government, which not only practised and condoned rampant corruption in many of its ministers and officials but also operated an army of trolls, controlled from the very heart of the government, to attack, dehumanise, vilify and demonise the journalist as well as other dissidents.
This horrendous practice was highlighted by the conclusions of the public inquiry into the assassination, which laid responsibility for the killing directly at the feet of the State.
Owen Bonnici was not only an integral part of the administration that actively promoted hate speech for so many years, but has himself been found guilty on a personal level of offences against free speech.
Bonnici’s insipid contribution offered nothing enlightening or insightful at all, though that can hardly have been expected from such a character. He blathered on about what hate speech is, and that it’s illegal to say or do anything that incites hatred or violence. It’s a shame he didn’t read up on it before October 2017.
He might have used the opportunity for a mea culpa, a humble acceptance of his own culpability, even if he couldn’t quite stomach the idea of making a straightforward apology to the activists against whom he sinned.
However, he didn’t even do that. Indeed, neither he nor the moderator thought to mention the fact that Bonnici had been found guilty of breaching human rights on freedom of expression.
And not only did he not apologise, but he actually sought to use a quotation from Winston Churchill to make an underhand dig at those protesting against hate speech.
Churchill made a speech in the UK parliament on 13 October 1943, in which he said that parliamentary democracy flourishes so long as there is full freedom of speech, free elections and free institutions.
He then went on to say, “So we must beware of a tyranny of opinion which tries to make only one side of a question the one which may be heard. Everyone is in favour of free speech. Hardly a day passes without its being extolled, but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage”.
Bonnici decided to take the last sentence and use it in isolation from the rest of Churchill’s quote. Some people, he said, think free speech means they can say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, “that is something which causes issues”.
It behoves us to remember that the demonisation campaign against Caruana Galizia was, and continues to be, justified by members of the PL government and its supporters, as being simply a response to what she wrote about them. Tit-for-tat.
But of course, that’s entirely false. There’s no equivalency between what Caruana Galizia wrote and the foul hatred orchestrated against her in an attempt to silence and stifle her.
Caruana Galizia was an investigative journalist, a political commentator and a columnist. Her focus was on people in public positions who were caught in corruption, criminality or morally reprehensible behaviour. The hatred and venom she endured for decades was not someone “saying anything back”. It was an organised attempt to erase her and destroy her.
The government-sponsored war of hate on Caruana Galizia was exactly the kind of thing that conferences such as this morning’s aim to eliminate. Racial, religious, gender, sexual orientation or transgender motivated hate speech are all major problems, of course, and the conference gave most of its attention to those issues.
But the presence of Owen Bonnici was an affront to anyone involved in the campaign for justice for Caruana Galizia, as well as to anyone who criticises this government or the rampant corruption of its members. Bonnici’s use of Churchill’s quote won’t have gone unnoticed. He may well come to regret using it.