The Malta Independent 11 August 2022, Thursday

European Capital of Culture 2021 director joins others in voicing concern over Jason Micallef

Sunday, 29 April 2018, 09:00 Last update: about 5 years ago

Rachel Attard and Joanna Demarco

Chris Torch, the artistic director of Timisoara European Capital of Culture (ECOC) 2021 has joined the ever-expanding list of individuals who have raised an eyebrow at Jason Micallef's behaviour, voicing their concern that his role as chairman of Valletta2018 is clearly untenable.

Commenting on an article on the subject published by this newspaper, Torch said, "The scandal has escalated. Freedom of press and respect for [a] victim of terror are basic ethics. Non-cooperation is certainly a legitimate [form of] support."


Torch's statement echoes similar ones made by Steve Green, Jordi Pardo, Joe Friggieri and other members of the selection committee which have been disclosed to The Malta Independent on Sunday. It also reiterates sentiments felt by the likes of internationally acclaimed writers from PEN International such as Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman and Ian McEwan.

Yesterday, this newspaper also reported that the chairman of the jury that selected Valletta as Malta's European Capital of Culture Manfred Gaulhofer slammed both Micallef and Artistic Director Mario Philip Azzopardi, saying that their behaviour is "absolutely incompatible with their function as representatives of Valletta as the European Capital of Culture 2018." Azzopardi had called a protester a 'sorry bitch' after she participated in and filmed a demonstration held in London against the IIP programme. He later apologised, claiming he had fallen victim to 'fake news'.

This newsroom also contacted Labour MEP Marlene Mizzi, who is a substitute member of the EU Committee of Culture and Education to ask her opinion as to whether she believes Micallef should resign, and whether she agrees with the comments made by the chairman.

"It is a fact that persons occupying public positions should realize that any declarations or opinions they publish will have a stronger impact - positive or negative - than opinions expressed by other citizens," she said. "However, one cannot deny the right of freedom of expression to any citizen, irrespective of what role/ position he or she occupies in the society."

The Malta Independent on Sunday also spoke to Maltese local artists who signed a petition last week calling for the resignation of Micallef. Over 150 local artists believe his position is untenable, and have pushed for his resignation.  

Micallef's resignation was called for after he made mocking comments linked to assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. He was also criticized for commenting in a heavily partisan manner, and for "publicly ridiculing artists who criticize those in power".

'It's ridiculous to compare a chairman's freedom of expression to an artist's'

Last week, more than 150 art professionals signed a petition that was sent to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat asking V18 Chairman Jason Micallef to be removed from his position.

Following this, The Malta Independent on Sunday spoke to a number of the concerned artists, asking them for their personal view on the issue, and why they supported this call. Consequently, their explanations also highlighted other affairs they are wary about being an artist in Malta.

"It is ridiculous to compare a chairman's freedom of expression to an artist's," said artist and curator Raphael Vella, in his explanation on why he signed the letter.

"Not because artists are a special breed. But when artists produce controversial works that are likely to get them into trouble that is a decision they take themselves and simply have to face the music. It's part of the job and if you are a strong artist, you know that you must stand up for what you believe in.

"On the other hand, when public figures accept top posts, they automatically accept a limitation on their freedom of expression because if they make embarrassing statements in public, these statements rub off on all the entity's events," he continued. 

"This is unfair on other participants who simply want to produce a great legacy based on solid values and this is also why the letter we signed does not criticize the foundation as a whole or even its programme."

The petition letter, which included the signatures of renowned local artists such as artists Debbie Caruana Dingli, producer Adrian Buckle, actors Edward Mercieca and Paul Portelli, and former V18 Executive director Karsten Xuereb, among many others, stated that Micallef is causing 'irreparable damage to the reputation, programme and leadership of Valletta 2018'.

"His ongoing derogatory public comments about the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia do not reflect the European objectives and principles of the Capital of Culture initiative," the petition stated, adding that he cannot be "purposely divisive in action" or "partisan in attitude", highlighting that Micallef also used his role to "publicly ridicule and attack artists who criticized and satirized those in power."

Concluding his statement to this newspaper, Vella lamented that "unfortunately, we are already seeing signs that this letter will be dumped into the messy pot of local political pique and mixed in well with other issues that are currently hitting the headlines."

"This way, it will be written off as just another Nationalist plot to overthrow the government. But you would only define critique in that way if you owed everything you have to a single party," he stated.

Future V18 collaborations will be 'publicly endorsing what Jason expressed'

Actor Paul Portelli believes that Micallef's actions have placed 'anyone who collaborates with V18' in a 'very uncomfortable situation'.

"If I had to collaborate with V18 now, I would be publicly endorsing what Jason expressed," Portelli wrote. "(With my work) I would be saying that it's all fine here, people are out drinking in the street and we don't really care if a journalist is murdered on the job."

Portelli was referring to Micallef's mocking of the last words of assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. In Caruana Galizia's final blogpost which was written and uploaded soon before she was murdered, she wrote 'There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate'. On 17th March, during St Patrick's Day celebrations in St Julian's, Jason Micallef uploaded a photo of the crowd and wrote "The situation is desperate. There is happy people everywhere you look. [sic]"

Petition highlights 'general disrespect and ignorance' towards the Arts in Malta

Alexandra, who preferred to keep her surname anonymous, a Maltese illustrator and printer admits that she "never really had faith that V18 would be any different from any other cultural/artistic governmental enterprise". "Jason Micallef's inappropriate comments about various citizens that form part of society his government currently represents, shows that he is incapable of having a professional demeanour as a person in a public government position... but for me this petition is bigger than that."

"It is about the general disrespect and ignorance towards the Arts in Malta," she stated.  

"Neither political party ever really cared about the Arts," she said. "From cuts in art subjects in schools, to the sad National Fine Arts museum and the much delayed opening of a Modern Art Gallery, to the farce that was the appointing of an ex-policeman as head of the Musician's Union, to radio/TV stations going on for years without paying music royalties.

"Jason Micallef being appointed as head of V18 was a step too far and finally people are making their voices heard," she said.

'At the heart of cultural activity should be a strong sense of respect'

Pianist, musician and educator Gisele Grima told The Malta Independent on Sunday that ultimately respect should be central to the country's cultural activity.

"I believe that at the heart of all cultural activity there should be first and above all else a strong sense of respect," she said. "Culture is meant to bring people together, and instead, the feeling that has come across via the Chairman's derogatory comments is one of hostility, in an attempt to instil fear.

"This attitude is far from exemplary and it most certainly does not represent my beliefs as an educator and an artist, nor, as we have seen, does it share the ideology of a European Capital of Culture," said Grima.

"Because of this, the V18 Chairman has shown a lack of integrity and respect towards the cultural sector. To that end, he does not support me and a larger network of artists who strive to uphold those values in their excellent work."



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