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Watch: Activists appropriated themselves of national monument – Owen Bonnici

Kevin Schembri Orland Wednesday, 19 September 2018, 13:46 Last update: about 7 years ago

Justice Minister Owen Bonnici has defended his decision to order the removal of the memorial to Daphne Caruana Galizia at the Great Siege monument, arguing that activists who used the site as a tribute to the assassinated journalist appropriated themselves of a national memorial commemorating a historic victory.

The Great Siege Monument is a national monument which is also linked to a national holiday; it is not a monument to Daphne Caruana Galizia, the minister said when asked by The Malta Independent to justify his actions.

The minister said that there are two points he wanted to make. Firstly, the items placed at the foot of the monument had caused damage to the monument, and that on Victory Day he asked for the restoration works, "which were already planned," to go ahead. He said the monument was closed off, "as happens during the restoration of any monument, so that the workers could conduct their work and clean up the national monument."

He said that this is a national monument tied to a national feast and that restoration work by the Restoration Directorate began on Monday.

The second point, he said, surrounds the question about permanency. He said that there is the question regarding the appropriation of the national monument in a way that changes its meaning to something else.

He said there is rule of law in Malta and that everyone must abide by it. He said that all people who form part of Occupy Justice and the other groups have the liberty to speak and express themselves, "doing all they feel they need to do, but when that activity ends, the national monument needs to remain a national monument."

The Great Siege national monument which celebrates Malta's 1565 victory against the Ottoman Empire this morning was covered up by a banner showing the government's plans to restore it this morning.

This newsroom told the minister that the memorial last Saturday was placed on the hoarding around the monument not on it, since the monument was closed off, and that a government banner has since been placed on the hoarding, which states that this is the Great Siege Monument. The police had also gone on site on a number of occasions and did not take down the memorial to the slain journalist, an indication that no law had been broken.

In reaction to this, the minister again said that it is a national monument, and "not a village monument", and is situated in a prime Valletta site and reiterated that it is associated with a national feast, he said, adding that it must be respected as such.

He said that in a democratic society that respects the law, a balance must be found where people can express themselves and say what they want to say in the strongest way possible, "as the protesters had every opportunity to do. But there must be agreement on the concept that there cannot be a change in the nature of the monument... If there is a wish for the creation of a memorial for someone, in this case Daphne Caruana Galizia, there is a law and process which must be obeyed. We must obey the law in this country in a proportionate, reasoned, balanced way, and I think that is what we are doing as government."

This newsroom pointed out the fact that he, as the Justice Minister, in ordering the removal of a memorial of an assassinated journalist who has become a symbol of free speech internationally, given the international media coverage her assassination received, is sending a very bad single, as though it is an assault on freedom of expression.

The minister disagreed, saying that he does not agree that this spot is a memorial for Daphne Caruana Galizia, again stating it is the Great Siege Monument. "If a section of the population want to create a memorial for Daphne Caruana Galizia they should not take the law into their own hands, and say that this space is theirs from that point on. There is a legal process; one applies and as in other cases there are the authorities to decide. That is the rule of law and we must respect it. I understand there is the free speech question and so every time there was a protest, banners etc. They were left to occur without any difficulty but when the activity ends, as happens in every other case, there is a clearance of whatever is left after the activity."

Asked if government is considering commemorating a memorial to the slain journalist, he said that this issue requires mature discussion arguing that a topic like this is controversial as while there is a section of the population admires the slain journalist, "there is a large section of the population who are hurt by all that Daphne Caruana Galizia wrote about them. On this point I think we need a discussion in this country on the way forward, one which is mature and objective, keeping the in mind the need for one's liberties and the need to obey the law."

Asked whether his ordering the removal of the monument has to do with his personal dislike of the murdered journalist, he said that he will not go into the merits of Daphne Caruana Galizia's writings. He said that he has an obligation to protect national monuments given his role as culture minister. He mentioned that there is no doubt that the activity there damaged the national monument, and said everyone agreed that the damage had to be fixed and that the monument be protected.

He also again highlighted the change of the national monument into something else by a section of the public. He said that this is an issue which needs to be looked at calmly and serenely. He said there are procedures for setting up a memorial, and that taking up public space arbitrarily and taking the law into your own hands is not a preferred option in a democratic country which respects the rule of law.

Again pressed to state, yes or no, whether this had anything to do with his personal dislike for the slain journalist, he said that the way he tackled this issue the past months, he called the murder 'barbarous' and said that it shocked Maltese society. He said that government's commitment to lead the investigations forward shows that "we are all able to distinguish between our personal understanding of her writings and need to take the correct decisions in our democracy."

PN reaction

In a statement, the Nationalist Party said it considered Bonnici's action as a sign of lack of respect towards freedom of expression.

It is unacceptable that the minister uses government workers to censure and intimidate Maltese citizens who have a right to protest.

In a democratic country, the government does its best to ensure that all citizens' rights are respected.



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