How shocking can my free speech be?

Over the past months, Malta’s been discussing free speech. It all started when government officials made negative comments. Is free speech the issue though? Is it about censorship? Or is the government trying to cloud the matter?


For those of you who don’t follow Maltese news, here’s a quick recap. (You can scroll down to the next section if you don’t want to go through this again.)

Mr Jason Micallef, Chair of V18

Valletta has the title of European City of Culture this year. A government organisation called V18 organises all activities related to this prestigious title. The government-appointed chairman of V18 is Mr Jason Micallef.

Mr Micallef got into trouble earlier this year for mocking the last words of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the journalist who was assassinated last year. He’s also repeatedly cleared a memorial to Ms Caruana Galizia, refusing to let people leave flowers in her memory. The matter has never been far from the news because he’s been continuously criticised. Civil society has also criticised Prime Minister Joseph Muscat for keeping him in place instead of sacking him.

Criticism rolled in from all over the world. The European capital of culture committee, European Parliamentarians, and international writers like Salman Rushdie, and Maltese art professionals, among others, have all condemned Mr Micallef.

They’ve called him “divisive and insensitive” and “undignified and unacceptable.” They’ve called Mr Micallef’s position “untenable” and should “be reconsider[ed].” He is “not represent[ing] European values” and his actions “are incompatible with those of an official representing the European Capital of Culture.”

Jason Micallef mocked the last words of an assassinated journalist. He still hasn’t resigned.

At an international level, he’s also offended the Dutch town of Leuuwarden. This town shares the title of 2018 European Capital of Culture with Valletta. The Dutch foundation running the show refuses to send anyone to Malta for joint events until V18 distances itself from the tone of Mr Micallef’s comments. “It is our duty,” the foundation says, “to defend these values.”

When you’ve so many people against you, you’d do well to think about things, right?

Mr Micallef has shrugged off all these calls and is still in office.

A few weeks’ ago, Dutch journalists grilled Culture Minister Owen Bonnici in Leeuwarden. Mr Bonnici repeated the government’s stated position; they will not take any action against Mr Micallef. Mr Bonnici argues that Mr Micallef is free to say whatever he likes. To do otherwise would be censorship. Journalists replied that it’s not about censorship but about decency.

And this is where the problem is. Is Mr Micallef exercising his right to free speech when he mocks an assassinated journalist’s words? Is the government trying to cloud the matter by calling this censorship?


Freedom of speech is always a tricky point, isn’t it?

Minister Owen Bonnici in the Netherlands

Many people talk about this and bandy the phrase about, especially on social media. In every case, they’re missing the point.

Freedom of speech is a simple concept. The government cannot prevent you from holding an opinion, or from saying something. Under Maltese law, we have this right under article 41 of our Constitution.

On the face of it, this should be a trivial matter. Mr Micallef has the right to state his opinion and no one should prevent him from stating it.

Does this close the case?



Far from it.

You see, the term ‘freedom of expression’ means you have the ability to say whatever it is you want to say. I shouldn’t stop you from saying it just because I disagree with it.

Jason Micallef has the right to state his opinion and no one should prevent him from stating it

That does not shield Mr Micallef from criticism or from consequences.

When people like me criticise you, Mr Micallef, it’s not because we want to prevent you from your right to express yourself.

It’s just that we think you’re an asshole.

And we’re showing you the door.

Moral: Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should.

Share this with someone who thinks Mr Micallef shouldn’t hide behind claims of ‘freedom of speech’


  1. Valletta Capital Of Culture Chairman Mocks Last Words Of Assassinated Journalist; Diacono, Tim; Lovin’ Malta; 2018-03
  2. Valletta 2018 chairman Jason Micallef again orders removal of Daphne banners; Balzan, Jurgen; The Shift News; 2018-04-16
  3. Micallef’s situation ‘reflects bigger democratic problem’ – V18 selection committee member; Attard, Rachel; The Malta Independent; 2018-04-26
  4. Sack Jason Micallef as V18 chairman now, 72 MEPs demand; The Times of Malta; 2018-04-19
  5. Humiliation For Jason Micallef As Valletta 2018’s Dutch Partner Imposes Malta Boycott; Diacono, Tim; Lovin’ Malta; 2018-04
  6. Minister Bonnici refuses to denounce Jason Micallef comments at Dutch grilling; Bonnici, Julian; The Malta Independent; 2018-07-12

All references were valid and correct when this article was published. Changes to referenced websites or web pages may render some references invalid. If this is the case, please leave a comment below.


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