A PR disaster for Malta

On huntintg, it is inconceivable that the Opposition party has so far failed to take a clear stand on an issue where political opposition is very sorely needed.

Recent events surrounding the spring hunting issue – including the fact that a BBC presenter was summoned for police questioning at the instigation of hunters, and detained for four hours – have once again exposed Malta to a barrage of international criticism.

Chris Packham’s interrogation by the police made the front pages of several UK newspapers, and arguably resulted in his early departure from a country which seems to have now declared open hostility towards wildlife conservation.

This was not the only incident where anti-spring hunting activists were apparently harassed and intimidated. BirdLife Malta officials were also summoned by the police, accused by hunters of breach of privacy and defamation. In one of the more bizarre moments, the police even justified the arrest of an activist by citing a law against possession of protected species: referring to dead or injured birds which had been collected as evidence of illegal hunting.

The effect of all this was to heavily underscore the perception that the Maltese police are acting in co-operation with hunters and against the interests of wildlife conservationists… a perception that was already firmly affixed in the minds of observers when an ALE officer was recorded insulting BirdLife personnel in crude terms. Yet all along, there has been overwhelming evidence – much of which was recorded and aired internationally on Packham’s blog and other media reports – of illegalities committed by hunters which were not properly investigated.

Data released by the police revealed that, of 40 apprehended offenders, only two had been arrested for shooting protected species. Yet evidence collected by conservationists points towards a far greater incidence than that: Packham’s video-blog alone revealed how supposedly ‘protected’ species such as swifts, swallows, various birds of prey, herons and many more were targeted throughout the season. In some cases there were recorded attempts to shoot rare Montagu’s harriers as they roosted in trees at night.

If the police only registered two cases of illegally shot birds, when amateur wildlife enthusiasts uncovered dozens of other incidents, one can only conclude that the level of law enforcement with regard to hunting does not meet the criteria to apply a derogation from EU law. More worryingly, in contrast to the police’s treatment of campaigners, it also suggests that the entire approach to law enforcement is rooted in all the wrong priorities.

To put the anomaly of the police’s behaviour into context, one need only compare the zeal with which they responded to complaints filed by hunters to the apathy they displayed when asked to investigate Ukrainian oligarch Rakhat Aliyev over much more serious accusations of torture and crimes against humanity. On that occasion, the police had to be taken to court twice, and eventually were forced to investigate the case by a judge.

This makes a mockery of the police’s claim that they have no option but to investigate all complaints. Evidently they pick and choose which cases to investigate and which to ignore: and this in turn points towards an eagerness to placate the hunters’ lobby which goes well beyond the police’s ordinary call of duty.

In conjunction with the Prime Minister’s statement this week – that he personally agrees with spring hunting regardless of the referendum – the impression is one of a political policy enforced through police action: not a very auspicious scenario, especially given that this issue also has an international dimension that may affect the credibility of the country as a whole.

All in all, the upshot was a torrent of bad press comparable only to the recent citizenship scheme debacle – although arguably more damaging, as (unlike the former case) international opposition to spring hunting can also have repercussions on Malta’s tourism industry. Clearly, the spring hunting issue is no longer a case of simple wildlife conservation: there are other concerns at stake, not least the issues of questionable police behaviour, as well as possible effects on the greater economy.

Faced with this situation, a referendum on spring hunting has become an urgent necessity. Both major political parties have consistently supported a situation that is both extremely damaging and also unpopular among the wider electorate. As such, one cannot expect present or future governments to ever willingly take any action to address these problems. 

Placing the decision in the electorate’s hands will paradoxically benefit the Labour government, as it would exonerate it of political responsibility for the decision. The Nationalist Party, however, faces a dilemma: it has already (fairly or unfairly) lost the trust of hunting lobby, and as yet it has not taken any stand on the referendum… thus confounding expectations among a sizeable portion of its own support-base that opposes spring hunting. It now runs a very real risk of losing on both fronts.

With so much at stake, it is inconceivable that the Opposition party has so far failed to take a clear stand on an issue where political opposition is very sorely needed. It is equally incongruous that the government would press ahead with a spring hunting policy that is so harmful to the country’s long-term interests.

Clearly, the political class has failed us on this issue. It is time for the electorate to take the decision for itself.

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