The Malta Independent 26 September 2018, Wednesday

Minister Bonnici refuses to denounce Jason Micallef comments at Dutch grilling

Julian Bonnici Thursday, 12 July 2018, 12:39 Last update: about 4 months ago

Culture Minister Owen Bonnici repeated his stance that he will refuse to censor V18 Chairman Jason Micallef over his mocking of the last words of assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, frequently highlighting the importance of freedom of expression, when facing a grilling from journalists and cultural authorities in Leeuwarden-Fryslân, Valletta's sister European Capital of Culture.

'That is not censoring, that is common decency,' one journalist told Bonnici who refused to comment directly on Micallef's comments, instead telling the members of the press that under the current administration criminal libel and censorship laws had been removed, and that he believed freedom of expression should be respected regardless of the individual saying it, unless it can be considered hate-speech, stressing that he has repeatedly called on politicians to be prudent in their speech.

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Bonnici said that he felt that a person had the right to say the country is doing well when there are people saying the complete opposite.

Pressed further to provide his own personal opinion given that he held his own freedom of expression, Bonnici once again reiterated that he believed in freedom in speech.

Bonnici was invited to speak in Leeuwarden-Fryslân, after its committee for the region's Capital of Culture decided not to send any more official representatives to Valletta, as long as V18 "does not distance itself from their offensive tone which refers, most notably, to the relatives of the murdered journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia."

This came after local artists, 72 MEPs, and PEN international writers for v18 Chairman Jason Micallef's resignation over the irreparable damage he has caused to the reputation, programme and leadership of Valletta 2018, with Ulrich Fuchs, the Chairman of the committee that monitored Valletta as European Capital for Culture in 2018, saying that he would not attend any V18 event "as long as people representing the project destroy European values."

Micallef openly ridiculed the last words of assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia amid ongoing calls from anti-corruption protestors and members of civil society for government to be held accountable, writing on social media the situation is desperate, there are crooks everywhere you look now - in a Facebook post about the St Patrick's Day festivities in St Julian's.

Asked specifically on multiple occasions whether he would distance himself from the comments, Bonnici failed to give a reply, instead repeating his stance with regards to freedom of expression.

I do not think a member of our board would have been able to keep his position after saying that - Sietske Poepjes

Bonnici's counterpart, Sietske Poepjes, was also asked about what she believed what would have happened, had a person in Micallef's position had made similar comments.

"I would not see something like that happening in Fryslân. There would have been a lot of trouble from politicians and the public. I do not think that any member of the board would have been able to keep their position. I hope that [Bonnici] is rethinking what he intends to do with the V18 Foundation," she said, while also praising the importance of dialogue and Bonnici's attendance at the grilling.

When faced with questions as to whether Micallef had failed in his unifying role as the Chairman of a European Capital of Culture foundation, Bonnici insisted that beyond his statements, Micallef had contributed significantly in uniting the country with the various projects that have taken place throughout V18.

"We have received so many benefits through V18. We have created an economic niche. It is all due to his merit. He has taken a unifying role by pushing culture forward for everyone," he said.

Taking a civil remedy against libel is a basic principle - Bonnici

Speaking of Caruana Galizia's assassination directly, Bonnici spoke of the profound shock and sentiment felt across the island after her murder, words that ring hollow as a quick gander through Facebook comments only months after her death can testify.

From his own end, Bonnici said that the government brought in a number on international authorities to find the alleged perpetrators, and were able to locate them within fifty days, saying that the presumption of innocence prevented him from talking about the case further.

He did say that the investigations were moving rapidly and work was being done to ensure that whoever commissioned the assassination would be found.

"We have left no stone unturned,' he said.

Asked on his government's involvement with a number of libel suits instituted against Caruana Galizia, Bonnici said that "if incorrect stories are written by anyone who tarnishes the reputation of an individual unjustly, then they can pursue a civil remedy, which is a basic principle everywhere," reiterating that his government had in fact reformed censorship laws and opened up laws for journalists to practice freely.

There needs to be a European Solution for SLAPP

Bonnici was pressed on the government's reluctance to put anti-SLAPP legislation protecting journalists from entities who shop around for foreign jurisdictions to bring lawsuits against individuals worth exorbitant financial damages in an attempt to silence and intimidate, as was seen with Pilatus Bank and their threats of multi-million euro lawsuits against Maltese independent media houses, and Daphne Caruana Galizia herself.

The opposition had presented an amendment in the Media and Defamation Bill approved earlier this year to include such legilsation, however, this was turned down by Bonnici and the governemnt. 

The Minister, who referenced the legal expertise from four lawyers who said that the country could not impose such legislation within the EU given other directors, pointed towards recent statements made by EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova.

"I cannot go against the principle of enforcement of judgements. There needs to be a European solution. I cannot legislate for this," he said.

Jourova in a reply from a question put forward by MEP David Casa said that in absence of union competence to harmonise substantive defamation laws and address SLAPP lawsuits, Member States are free to introduce such legislation at the national level. However, she insisted that these initiatives govern the jurisdiction of the EU Member State's national courts in cross-border civil and commercial disputes (including defamation cases), as well as the recognition and enforcement of judgments from the other Member States, namely Regulation 1215/2012.

 

 


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