The Great Siege Memorial in Valletta has been consolidated as the most important and symbolic front in a struggle for basic freedoms in this country. The flowers and candles and printed messages and photographs started out little less than a year ago as an outpouring of grief and popular anger at the killing of a journalist who enjoyed readership and respect as much as hatred and derision.
But the waves of removal of the flowers and candles and the counter-waves of placing fresh ones back opened up a very important question. Do people have the right to use public space to register a consistent protest on a matter of embarrassment or displeasure to the government on a more or less permanent basis?
Until last week the government gave themselves an alibi. No one ever doubted that if not all of the 10 times the flowers and candles were cleared, most of the times that happened on instructions from the prime minister’s office. The calls from the parastatal henchmen like Jason Micallef and Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando “to clean up” the site of any evidence of anyone’s anger at the impunity served to those who killed a journalist here were inconclusive evidence of state agency.
Until of course the government stopped biding its time. There have been few secular causes in Malta that sustained protest for eleven months. You’d have to go back to the 1980s to find anything of such endurance, no doubt because you’d have to go back that far to find issues of fundamental rights challenged so aggressively by the state. The government do not want the anniversary of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination to refresh the worldwide anger at the government’s failure to even touch stones, never mind turn them.
Joseph Muscat has understood the symbolism of a rallying point in the heart of Valletta, right opposite of our law courts. He has been told how right up to last week there has not been a day-time hour when people, particularly tourists and overseas business visitors, did not stop for a few minutes at the Great Siege Memorial to witness a rare piece of living evidence this country has a soul.
The Attorney General has been put up to the farce of resisting the publication of the Egrant inquiry report to give Joseph Muscat the time to redact the document in a manner that suits him and then to publish it when what is left of it best helps his tactical need of decapitating any resurgent protests in October.
But doing that is not enough. The government ordered the Great Siege memorial, that so many professed forced affection for seeing it sullied by flowers and candles over the past 11 months, covered and access to it restricted by police barriers.
It now cannot be seen or reached.
They did this on 8th September itself, the holiday that marks the events celebrated by the Memorial. The contractor was instructed to set up scaffolding and to barricade the memorial on a Saturday public holiday, unheard of unless the Memorial was in some danger of collapsing.
It wasn’t even in any need of restoration. Din l-Art Ħelwa took care of that just 8 years ago and the memorial would not have needed anything like a ‘restoration’ for at least another generation. And even if all the barricades can be justified to scrub off candle wax and soil stains, what justifies the police barriers keeping anyone from getting near the scaffolding?
Why is justification needed? Because a public space does not belong to Joseph Muscat or even to the government. In a free society, a city square belongs to the people: it is an agora, a free space for people to move, to talk, to protest if they wish it, or to walk by to the next shop if their preference is to live like zombies of a material world.
The government’s duty is to ensure public safety for the agora: that no one’s actions hinder other people’s freedoms. They cannot themselves be the agent that prevent the exercise of public freedoms. They not only have no right to do so unless there’s a specific danger they have the legitimate authority to prevent, it is contrary to their most basic duty to restrict access to open space, especially on ground so hallowed as one of the most important public squares in the most prominent street of our nation’s capital.
Those police barriers blocking the way in Great Siege Square are an illegal act. They are the chalice the king tossed when the ghost of Banquo made an appearance at dinner. Obeying those barriers and the police’s orders to stay on one side of them is complicit in the government’s efforts to assuage the guilt that poisons their mind of a political murder in pursuit of an elusive peace I fear they played most foully for.
It is a duty of citizens to defy those barriers. Not everyone will care. Most won’t. Of those who do, few will dare. Some out of genuine fear of reprisal but most of those who would never cross a line drawn in the ground by a policeman, would not do so out of an innate respect for law and authority.
The ones who do defy these lines do so out of respect for greater laws.
Public, open spaces belong to the public and must be open.
The freedom to speak is only useful when we are free to speak in a way that displeases the government.
Flowers and candles are a threat to no one except the guilty that must be exposed even by their reactions to them.
A call for justice must be kept up until justice is served. If there is real fear justice will never be served, the reaction is not to quit the cry but to make it louder.
Those barriers must go. Either the government removes them or we will have to.