It is a small miracle that we even know of the case of a Bangladeshi journalist who sought refuge in Malta from violent retribution for reporting on election fraud in his native country. The 23-year-old man filmed bosses from the ruling party stuffing ballots and broadcast them on the TV network he worked for. For doing his job, party bosses mobilised thugs and threatened his family and his home. He ran away, landing in Malta by boat.
There are many possible reasons for a person to want to escape their country. A journalist fearing retribution because of their reporting is only one of those possibilities. I find it easy to relate to this one. I recognise that some might think that concerns I may have had for my own safety at one point, were exaggerated. But whatever the objective reality was, I subjectively felt I needed a way out and I was given it by an NGO operating in another country that let me in and treated me as if I was one of their own.
How did my country treat this Bangladeshi journalist?
We incarcerated him upon arrival ranking the ‘crime’ of arriving here by boat rather than on a plane in possession of papers, above the clear urgency of his departure from his country without the luxury of waiting for the nearest Maltese consulate to his home to mull over his visa application.
We denied him legal representation or advice to let him know his rights under domestic and international law and to help him prepare the evidence he would need to access those rights. We knew that we had the obligation to protect someone running for their life but we prevented him from learning about that obligation so we wouldn’t have to honour it.
We worked on the baseless presumption that he came from a ‘safe’ country and we therefore had no obligation to even take the time to assess the risk he was in. This ‘safe’ country business of putting a green tick or a red cross against the name of a country and thinking we know everything about everybody’s situation shows we’re no better than concentration camp guards evaluating the condemned on their ability to work before the gas chamber.
The European Court of Human Rights in this decision showed the local authorities what they should have done if they had to properly assess how safe Bangladesh would be for this journalist. The court quoted mountains of research made available for free on the internet by human rights organisations and by organisations who speak on behalf of journalists to show, beyond any doubt, that Bangladesh is anything but safe for journalists who speak out against government corruption and crime. We should be familiar with that. In this island paradise a journalist was blown up in a car for her journalism. Is Malta a safe country? Ask that to Daphne Caruana Galizia’s family.
We considered the journalist’s application through an “accelerated procedure” which in and of itself is a presumption that there’s no basis to his claim. His application was considered in a day and rejected. He appealed and his appeal was considered the next day. On the day it was rejected.
He tried again. Rejected again. Appealed again. Rejected again.
It’s like Red’s parole reviews on Shawshank Redemption but all happening between showers.
By this point, while still in detention, he was not allowed to see a lawyer. Because, you know, even fundamental human rights are locked down by covid. The evidence he presented that he was a journalist was deemed not credible for no other reason but that if it had been believed our obligation to protect him would have kicked in.
An order to ‘remove’ him was issued which he knew meant forcing him back right into the hellish danger he had gone through so much to run away from. On his way up the airplane steps, his hands tied behind his back, he would have been photographed by someone hired by the government and his image would go in with a chance of featuring in another government brochure sent to voters’ homes proudly confirming the growing statistics of brown and black people, illegals, repatriated out of the country. The brochure would never say one of the brown people was a journalist in fear for his life. It would say nothing about any one of them except that they were being pushed out.
This is the point when Neil Falzon who heads the incredibly brave Aditus foundation became aware of the case and armed the Bangladeshi journalist with a proper legal fight. He secured for his client an interim order from the European Court of Human Rights stopping the government from forcing the journalist on a plane before his case is heard in Strasbourg.
A third round of application and appeal ended in double rejection here while the case was argued in the Strasbourg court. Our government argued that the Bangladeshi journalist had rushed to Strasbourg too soon, not having been to Malta’s courts first. By that they meant that Strasbourg should be as indifferent to his specific circumstances as the authorities working here in Malta had been and to prioritise the procedural rules over the life-threatening circumstances of the individual making the claim. The facetiousness of the government’s argument was too risible for the European judges. If the journalist attempted to seek justice here in Malta he’d have been flown out well before he ever got an answer. Strasbourg would hear him out.
The European Court decision documents just how superficial the asylum protection evaluation procedure is, how prejudiced against the applicant it is, how indifferent to an applicant’s individual plight, and how unfair. The applicant is detained without access to a lawyer prevented even from accessing their own phone let alone any material evidence to back up their claim they have a right to protection. Then when they’re dragged to a hearing they barely understand they are rejected because the quality of their evidence is too weak and deemed not credible.
This case is compelling because it concerns a journalist and that in and of itself is significant in this country because of our political history. It reminds us that our authorities just do not understand the relationship between democracy and the free press whether in its conduct in respect of journalists based here or, for that matter, when treating journalists from anywhere else.
But this case is representative of the way we treat anyone, no matter their profession, running away from great dangers and real risks to their lives and seeking protection in our country. We don’t look properly at their story and we do not take the time to understand it. To say we treat them as criminals is too generous because we afford criminals the time and the legal resources to argue in their own defence, to give context to their actions, all while we presume their innocence and give them a fair hearing. We do not do that for people seeking our protection. We treat people seeking asylum here as less than human, separating their individual circumstances and needs from the fundamental rights our laws theoretically afford every human being.
Not even the indefatigable Neil Falzon can reach and represent every individual treated unfairly and unlawfully by our authorities. You would think that this win would have a symbolic effect, benefitting people with a right to our protection whether they have a lawyer or not.
And yet we know full well that the Maltese authorities will not even pretend to learn from this Strasbourg decision. They will not change their procedures, they will not provide lawyers, they will not allow applicants to access evidence, they will not give a fair hearing to the labourers, the doctors, the farmers, the lawyers, the nurses, and the clerks who land on our shores with urgent reasons to escape risk to life and limb in their own countries. Our authorities do not see journalists and teachers and opposition activists. They see black people and brown people.
Hell, this Strasbourg decision will not even give this individual Bangladeshi journalist any form of a guarantee that he won’t be forceably repatriated. The European Court could only ask the local authorities not to fly him out before hearing his application to stay again, not order them to do it.
It is up to us and we know what we’ll do.