The government is not appealing a constitutional court decision that found one of its ministers guilty of human rights breaches. The decision was against Owen Bonnici for ordering the daily removal of the protest site in Valletta asking for justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia. The court observed that Bonnici used the memorial where the protest is sited to foster division in the country.

The court said it did not believe the minister’s claim he wanted to “protect” the memorial. This was an “excuse” which does not explain the removal of the protest even when it was attached to a wooden hoarding.

The court pointed out that the hoarding is not there anymore. So, protesters, in exercising their right, should act responsibly and ensure their action does not harm the memorial. Fair enough.

In not appealing the decision, the government acknowledges it was wrong and that it has no hope of finding a higher court that is prepared to say otherwise.

That does not mean the government is going to openly admit defeat. One TV’s coverage presented the court decision to its audience as a victory for the government and an admonishment to protesters for “damaging” the memorial.

You could say One TV preaches to people who need little reason to think their party is always right. But TVM’s coverage of the court decision was truly revolting. It followed One TV’s line that the decision was not about the breach of fundamental rights but about which shelf on the memorial your sundry candle should be placed on. It turned a victory for democracy into a loss for decency.

Now – incredibly – TVM retains that veneer of independence that gives it undeserved credibility to an even larger share of the population than that utterly possessed by One.

In retaining Bonnici in office, Abela makes his own the shared responsibility of Muscat’s administration for the criminal handling of the killing of Caruana Galizia

The line to take was handed down from Prime Minister Robert Abela. In comments to journalists he bluffed: “The court decision is 115 pages long. You should read it all”, implying that a full reading would justify his decision not to fire Owen Bonnici.

It is not an insensible bluff. Most journalists are not going to read a 115-page court decision. I have read it, of course, and though my bias is obvious I can only say Bonnici’s dismissal is inescapable.

Or should be. But resignations do not happen here until witnesses actually start producing material evidence of a murder conspiracy.

Now this is interesting. I’m defending a libel case brought against me by Malta Today columnist Raphael Vassallo who said in court last week that he is fearing for his life because I wrote that when as a journalist he tried to persuade his readers that Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder was a conspiracy of known criminals and had nothing to do with the State he was (perhaps unwittingly) collaborating with the mafia that infiltrated our State and killed her. A collaborator of the mafia, I argued, is part of it.

I suppose Bonnici can sue me as well. This was never about the flowers per se. This was not a dispute over a garden centre. This was about the attempt to suppress a protest intended to pressure the institutions to reach and punish the criminals, including those operating within the structures of the State, that conspired to kill Daphne.

In attempting to erase this discourse from the public square, Bonnici sought to create the silence in which this murderous mafia thrives. In collaborating with it, he is part of it.

Only the State (or in this case a minister of State) can be guilty of a human rights breach, and that is serious enough. But what we are talking about here is a human rights breach by a very specific category of State: a State infiltrated by the mafia acting to cover up the most heinous crime, the murder of a journalist.

The court did not need to delve too deep into the merits of the protest. It went in deep enough to determine that our actions were understandable. That was important because if we were insisting on putting candles and flowers at the memorial in Valletta to demand justice for Elvis Presley or Charles I, our claim that we were expressing free speech on a matter of controversy in a demo­cratic polity would have not been credible.

For the court it was enough to determine that we had a reason to protest to move to protect our right to choose the timing, location and method of our protest and to dismiss the government’s attempts to dictate terms on that.

But now, with the government’s decision not to appeal the decision, this is no longer a matter for the courts.

The courts have condemned Bonnici for persistent, brutal, “absurd”, “spiteful”, “divisive” abuse of human rights without needing to go into why he did it, because in legal terms that is not relevant.

It is relevant in the real world out here. Bonnici censored the protest because he didn’t want us to ask if his colleagues Keith Schembri, Konrad Mizzi and Chris Cardona, and his clients Joseph and Michelle Muscat might have had something to do with the killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Perhaps the creation of the environment which allowed it to happen, or perhaps its plotting and financing, or perhaps its cover-up after the fact.

It is unacceptable for a minister to exceed his powers and violate individual human rights in pursuit of policy. But it is an altogether different level of outrage for a minister to exceed his powers and violate individual human rights as part of a conspiracy to cover up a political assassination.

In retaining Bonnici in office, Abela makes his own the collective and shared responsibility of Muscat’s administration for the criminal handling of the killing of Caruana Galizia. True enough, this is primarily an honour for Muscat’s government that can add another title to some of the dishonourable cre­dits in its history: “condemned for human rights violations”.

But Abela is under no obligation to keep Bonnici in government. The choice of retaining him is his own. The decision to declare he “sees no reason to remove him” is his own. He takes it freely.

This decision, taken at the very top, is then reflected in the TVM/One spin that the government won the case on the protest memorial. We are expecting some very unpleasant days ahead. The chatter on social media is frightening. Many followers of the government feel empowered – nay, they feel in duty bound – to vandalise the memorial or to trivialise it or to scale up the assault on protesters that has already resulted in physical injury in the past.

Incredibly, a government minister last week reacted to the court’s decision by saying the government is now ready for reconciliation. And yet all they intend to do about the breach that has been declared by the courts is to stop perpetrating it.

But what we’re facing instead is a more focused government effort to cultivate division. In retaining Bonnici, in spinning a court decision to signify the opposite of what it said, in mobilising trolls, Abela is repositioning Bonnici’s clumsy censorship campaign into a more insidious, more effective act of State-sponsored violence.

Abela expects thanks for not violating our fundamental human rights. He has got to do better than that.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us