Two things happened this week that should remind us how rapidly and how dramatically freedom of speech is being eroded in this country.
Jason Micallef is too often dismissed as a clown, because he is. But this particular clown heads the media of the ruling party and the agency that manages “culture” in the capital city. It is a mistake, therefore, to dismiss the man’s utterances as one does with some embarrassment the rants of a drunk.
In a public statement, he called posters stuck in soil of planters in a public place, right opposite parliament, the building that houses the targets of the protest, as “vandalism” and “rubbish”. As the Constitutional Court patiently explained in the case Emanuel Delia v Owen Bonnici et about a similar protest in front of the court building, items left in protest are “not rubbish”.
They are the exercise of democratic and civil liberty and whatever Micallef thinks about it, as an agent of the state he has the constitutional duty to protect that.
The deputy mayor of Valletta, another official of the state, called for the arrest and prosecution of protesters, saying that the act of placing posters stuck to kebab sticks and planted in soil in a public space “does not happen in other civilised countries”.
You would have to wonder what civilised country Ray Azzopardi has been to.
If it’s China, he must have missed the official memo that says “we do not talk about Tiananmen”.
I happen to know the protesters and I know they would like nothing better than Micallef and Azzopardi seeing their threats through.
The two men between them do not have the intellectual resources to outwit a particularly sleepy sloth, let alone the women who looked Joseph Muscat in the eye until he shied and slithered into his corner.
But that’s not the point. The point is anyone who is not the thick-skinned women of Occupy Justice may have a reason to leave a colourful note for their MP stuck in the soil of Micallef’s gardening allotment at the entrance of our city.
They may have a complaint about environmental degradation, poor schooling resources, discrimination against a minority or, for that matter, the president’s choice of curtains for the palace. All those people, all those ideas, all their rights are being bullied into submission and silence.
That’s not the worst thing that happened this week. Yorgen Fenech has been mobilising his friends in power to silence his critics and the journalists exposing his illicit activities and relationships for many years.
No one has a right to resort to the pretext of privacy in order to cover up illicit conversations- Manuel Delia
Consider a story published by this newspaper last March. Fenech exchanged a series of messages with Heathcliff Farrugia, the man who then ran the Gaming Authority, on how to cover up wrongdoing at the Portomaso casino to dodge questions I was asking about the inexplicably generous terms Alfred Degiorgio enjoyed there.
“Dak Manuel Delia veru aħdar,” the gaming regulator told Fenech.
Times of Malta learnt of this conversation because when Fenech was arrested for murder, his phone still contained the record of that chat.
We would never have known otherwise. We would never have known either that Fenech got Joseph Cuschieri and Edwina Licari – then employed at the Gaming Authority as well – to draft for him the application he needed to send them to extend his gaming license.
We would never have read Rosianne Cutajar’s gushing messages to Fenech telling him €9,000 in cash was too generous for a birthday gift but not offering to return them. She would still be a junior minister now.
We would never have known that the then chairman of the Planning Authority told Fenech he would go into business with him “whenever you want”, even as he was evaluating controversial planning applications by the tycoon.
The magistrate presiding over the compilation of evidence against Fenech heard a complaint from his lawyers after Times of Malta published conversations Fenech had had with Anton Attard, who sought advice on fixing betting odds to manipulate voting in an international singing competition. The report came in the context of news that TVM had used public funds to fix the odds in favour of Malta’s entry for the Eurovision.
Magistrate Rachel Montebello stopped short of punishing Jacob Borg, the reporter who wrote that story. She did, however, rule that reporting about Eurovision odds-fixing was “not in the public interest” and was “not investigative journalism”.
Thank the stars, magistrates do not get to make those calls, journalists do.
Therein is the essence of free expression.
Granted, it is indeed her job to protect the rights of Fenech.
Someone has to.
Since the magistrate herself acknowledges the reporting does not prejudice Fenech’s right to be presumed innocent of murder, the reporting of his illicit dealings with politicians and public officials is absolutely fair game.
No one has a right to resort to the pretext of privacy in order to cover up illicit conversations that prove corruption and other crime, not even Fenech.
On the other hand, it is absolutely in the public’s interest to know that the politicians and officials they pay to represent their interests are colluding with someone they are supposed to be regulating.
The magistrate’s decree is a warning that defiance of her gagging order will rain down consequences on the journalists who decide to publish anyway.
It is in the public interest for that order to be defied.
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