BBC journalist Chris Packham has condemned the “little political will” of the government to enforce hunting regulations after a number of protected birds held within an illegal enclosure mysteriously vanished, the naturalist revealed during an interview with The Malta Independent
This occurred after Mr Packham had earlier reported the incident to Gozitan police.
Mr Packham's attempts to film the then-empty enclosure resulted in his high-profile arrest on charges of assaulting the two men to whom the enclosure belongs.
He was later acquitted by Gozitan courts after the presiding magistrate was shown footage showing the men and police officers shoving and shouting at the group.
The episode, Mr Packham explained, all began on Tuesday morning when, along with his colleague and a bird life activist, stumbled upon an aviary in Gozo.
“We looked at them and we thought there was a good chance that these birds were being kept illegally.”
The group then captured a video of the birds trapped within the enclosure, and contacted the police.
“When the police arrived, the owner of the property came out and emerged with a list. Some of the birds were not on the list he provided, so he added them to it.”
The police informed the group that they could not do anything about it until an investigation by the Wildlife Bird Regulation Unit (WBRU) would be conducted, which would occur two days later on Thursday.
The same day, the group stumbled upon a second aviary in a different area completely unrelated to the first.
“We suspected illegal activity and called the police for a second time. This time when they arrived, they were accompanied with the WBRU.”
Once the WBRU finished inspecting the second site, where they found nothing irregular, Mr Packham requested that the WBRU officers visited the original site.
The group accompanied the officers, however when they approached the original site, the aviary, which was full of birds the previous day, was now empty.
“We were preparing to film the empty cage, when two cars drove quickly up the road. The car stopped right beside us, and the drivers leapt out and started shouting at us, telling us that it was private property. He also insulted me.”
One of the two men inside the car, who was older, began to push and shove Mr Packham .
“My colleague was told to stop filming, but rather than stopping, she placed the camera down her by waist, so you could still see their shadows and hear their voices.”
“What is clear is that during the entire altercation I did not say a word to the men involved until I spoke to the policeman at the end.”
“The police officer also started pushing and shoving my colleague and myself up the street”.
“After telling me that I had to enter my vehicle and leave the area since it was private land, he told me twice that he would use the evidence provided by the two men to prosecute me”.
The BBC journalist released the video of the entire incident on Youtube.
Mr Packham then said that the group waited in their vehicle roughly 40 meters away from the site while the police conducted their investigation.
The same police officer then returned to the vehicle and told Mr Packham to visit the police station and provide the officers with Identification.
“When we got to the police station, I noticed that the two men were talking to the police officers. Once they left, the officer informed me that I was being charged with assault and that the birdlife activist would be charged with falsely reporting evidence."
“We may not know what the WBRU found in their investigation, but we know that the aviary was full of birds previously”
Mr Packham was then told that he would need to appear in court on Thursday morning or face arrest.
“What was unusual is that when we turned up on Thursday morning the police officer who filed the complaint and claimed that I had attacked the man was not even present”
“The older man was also missing, with the younger one pretending that he was the one who had pushed and shoved me”
Mr Packham provided his video evidence to the court.
“It is clear as day that I was innocent and it was the man and the police officer who were being aggressive”
Magistrate Joe Mifsud, who presided over the arraignment, acquitted the men over a lack of evidence and told the court that journalists were an important part of democracy and should be protected.
“I got a sense that he was a little bit agitated and angry that this case had been brought to court in the first place. He thought it was a waste of time and that the police had behaved in a manner that was inappropriate.”
“From my point of view, I see this experience as a positive thing since it allows us to demonstration to the people of Malta and Gozo, and across Europe, the incredibly difficult circumstances both birdlife and cabs work under merely because they are democratically and legally asking for the law to be upheld when it comes to bird crime, and they face is intimidation and threats.”
“This will hopefully show people that there seems to be little political will to instruct the police to have the law upheld.”
“The police officer and his colleagues were obstructive, we ended up in court, and the man who is suspected of illegal activity is nowhere to be seen. That’s really disappointing.”
Mr Packham first entered the Maltese public conscience following his release of 'Massacre on Migration' in 2014, in which particular episodes focused on the situation in Malta.
Since then, there was an unsuccessful referendum to ban spring hunting and an increase in enforcement.
However, Mr Packham believes that the attitude police officers have towards enforcement on the issue remains mixed.
“I’ve come here over the last four years and we have seen policeman arrive promptly, listen to what birdlife have to say, and acted upon it.”
He pointed to an incident earlier in the week when CABS informed police of illegal nets in the countryside.
“The police arrived in thirty minutes and confiscated the nets immediately”.
He did concede that on other occasions police have apprehended hunters in possession of shot protected birds but failed to follow up on the case.
“There is a lack of political will to organise and devote more resources to the police force to have properly trained officers in the field who understand and want to upload the law independent of any interest they may have themselves. ”
“In the whole of Malta the relevant authorities only have one police car which can enter this terrain and can only be occupied by two police officers”.
In an interview with The Malta Independent on Sunday, Minister for the Environment Jose’ Herrera said that while he condemns the number of protected birds that were shot in the previous Autumn hunting season, "If you had to take a collective action arbitrarily, I think you would be acting unjustly. For example, if some nightclub owners misbehave, you don't close all the nightclubs, you only do it when there is a threat in one area infringing individual rights.”
In response, Mr Packham said that while Birdlife is not interested in collective punishment and there are hunters who act perfectly legal, the law has to be followed and enforced.
"The Prime Minister has twice closed down the hunting season, after few illegalities, and I cannot understand why he has failed to take action. It may be because it is close to an election and the hunting lobby commands a 10,000 strong membership not including their family members.”
In the same interview the Minister admitted that in “Malta our enforcement is not up to mark” and that Gozo’s “double insular mentality” and culture of omertà, has meant that is difficult to maintain enforcement.
For Mr Peckham, this line of reasoning is “rubbish”.
“If Malta wants to be a modern democratic country, which is deserves to be, it needs to uphold all laws. You cannot choose where to draw the lin., will you not report your friend if he’s stealing from a bank or committing a worse crime? It cannot be flexible, if the law is written down, that’s it.”
The Government of Malta has already found itself in hot water on the issue of hunting, in particular to that of finch trapping. Malta currently enjoys a derogation through the EU Birds directive for trapping using traditional selective claps.
However, in 2014 the European Commission iniated legal procedures against Malta, which is being heard by the courts at the moment.
For Mr Packham, some of the Maltese, not all of them, he stressed,have a complete disregard for EU regulations.
“Illegal trapping is a real issue in Malta, this spring (when there is a complete ban on the activity) CABS found in excess of 100 trapping sites on the coast.”
“Malta deserves to be part of a modern Europe, but you have to stick to the rules that govern all of us. Those rules have been put in place to protect species of birds that are endangered.”
“For example, in the case of the stone curlew, which was shot during the spring hunting season this year, the UK and other EU member states spend thousands of pounds per bird to keep them alive, build habitats, and protect them from people, so they can continue to breed.”
Here, he explains, there are two contrasting attitudes between Malta and the rest of Europe.
“Across Europe,people spend loads of time and energy to protect these birds, and here in Malta someone shoots it.”
“It just does not fit with this day and age, and this why even if some people argue that it is tradition, it is tradition that is no longer acceptable or sustainable. Slavery was a tradition, beating your wife was a tradition, persecuting homosexuals was a tradition. These are all unacceptable things that we do not want our society any longer. We cannot use tradition as an excuse for illegalities.”
The Ornis Committee, which is stipulated in the EU directives, is perceived to be a toothless committee which rarely seems to intervene on the issue.
“There certainly needs to be something new” Mr Packham said, “ for instance, the Attorney General in Malta had called on the government to place turtle doves as a protected species after their levels dropped, but the WBRU did nothing.”
“These are the very people who should be monitoring the decline of these birds, and changing hunting policies in Malta to ensure their protection, but it seems that they wanted to suppress what the AG was saying.”
“The country was extremely lucky not to be taken to court by the commission by saying that they would stop the shooting next year.”
"The European Commission’s job is to police member states. Karmenu Vella is the current commissioner and he is taking too long to implement legislation, we are losing too many birds”
“We appeal to any of our supporters to contact the EU commission and the Maltese government to do something about it."