Open season on democracy? | Mark Mifsud Bonnici

St Hubert’s Hunters president MARK MIFSUD BONNICI insists that a referendum on spring hunting would be illegal. Have hunters finally turned their guns onto the democratic process?

Photo by Chris Mangion
Photo by Chris Mangion

Yesterday, the autumn hunting season resumed after a 20-day moratorium imposed by the government following reports of illegal hunting. Associations such as FKNK and St Hubert’s Hunters have cried foul over what they term ‘collective punishment’ over the infringements of only a handful of people. But what this argument overlooks is that those infringements occurred after hunters had been given repeated warnings (not least, by their own associations) to get their own act in order.

Earlier this year, the penalties for illegal hunting were significantly increased, in order to justify the removal of a 3pm curfew (which was originally aimed to offer protection for migratory birds of prey). So it’s not as though the hunters hadn’t been given fair warning. And besides: if all these measures failed to stop an annual barrage of illegal hunting incidents... what other options are even left to get the message across that this sort of behaviour can no longer be tolerated?

It is armed with questions such as these that I make my way to the residence of Mark Mifsud Bonnici: president of St Hubert’s Hunters, and a staunch critic of both the moratorium and the proposed spring hunting abrogative referendum.

“When the season was closed, there had only been around four or five reported incidents in the press,” he begins as I ask him to outline the ‘collective punishment’ argument. “Why should 10,000 people be punished for the actions of four people? That’s the question people should be asking. And why punish everyone collectively? Why weren’t the people responsible for those incidents taken to court individually and fined under the new regime?”

He refers me to the recent case where a man was charged with killing a protected stork. “He got a €5,000 fine and a suspended sentence, which the police are now appealing. If you ask me, that is proof enough that the law is actually working. The police appealed because they want harsher penalties to be applied properly… not at the discretion of a magistrate. They want to prove the point that they are after proper enforcement…”

Perhaps, but at the same time we have seen that it is impossible to police the hunting situation in practice. Couldn’t it be argued, then, that the government closed the season because there was no other way to control the illegalities?

Mifsud Bonnici denies that the hunting situation is out of control. “When one compares what happened 10, 15 years ago to what is happening today, you’ll find it’s totally different. Up to accession in 2004 there was no enforcement at all. But from accession onwards, I think the improvement has been amazing, to be quite honest. Where before you had everyone shooting at everything, you now have only four or five who still consider themselves above the law. I think we’ve learnt our lesson quite well…”

All the same, some would say the hunters brought the situation on themselves by refusing to self-regulate. Why has self-regulation proved so difficult for hunters?

“Well, I’ll give you just one example. There are only certain parts of the island where illegalities are still rampant. Now: how am I meant to know what happens in Marsascala, Birzebbugia or Bugibba? I would be willing to cooperate and report any illegal hunting I see, if the law was giving me protection. But obviously people in these areas are not willing to do what I would do….”

That answer works well enough on an individual level, but I was actually asking him in the capacity of the president of a hunting association. St Hubert’s Hunters is admittedly among the smallest such organisation – with only 200 members – but to be eligible for a hunting licence one has to be a member of an association… so collectively, these groups have a responsibility to control their members.

Mifsud Bonnici freely admits that he is less than happy with the disciplinary standards in other groups. “I can only speak for KSU. We’ve never had any problem with any of our members, or chucked anyone out. But these things happen elsewhere. Around 3,000 licensed hunters are members of associations apart from us and FKNK, and some of these would have been chucked out from other groups. How are we to guarantee that half the cases of illegal hunting aren’t coming from these other associations, who don’t even profess zero tolerance? Who don’t even say they would expel members who break laws? Unless these things are arranged, you can’t blame the FKNK or us…”

Could it also be that 10,000 hunters is too high a figure for such a small country? One of the arguments consistently brought forward (also in the European Court) in defence of spring hunting was that the autumn season is not a ‘satisfactory solution’ to spring because there are too few birds to shoot. Isn’t that another way of saying that we are licensing too many people to shoot a pool of birds that is too small?

“I wouldn’t say so. We’re only talking about turtle dove and quail being a problem: there is no problem with all the other species we shoot in autumn. In fact we never asked for a derogation for the other birds, because they do pass in autumn. But when it comes to turtle dove and quail the European court has recognised that autumn migration is ‘inconsiderate’. This is what makes Malta a perfect case where the derogation can be applied. This is what the court said…”

This pre-empts a number of questions I wanted to ask. Mifsud Bonnici claims that the European Court judgment has ‘confirmed’ Malta’s right to allow hunting in spring. But this claim doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Hunters have seized on half a sentence in that ruling – which actually found Malta guilty of violating the Birds Directive between 2004 and 2008 – and blown it out of all proportion.

Even here, the half-sentence only observed that one of the conditions for a derogation – i.e., the issue of ‘satisfactory solution’ – is in place. But there are other conditions, including satisfactory law enforcement. In a nutshell, the European Court did not give carte blanche to the government to allow spring hunting…

“No. You are wrong. I will argue this point till I die. The court found Malta guilty of derogating incorrectly for four years, from 2004 to 2008: reason being that the way Malta applied the derogation in those years was done wrongly. And I won’t go into the merits of who advised the government on how to apply a derogation, because you know better than I that it was Saviour Balzan. But the court ruling gives us the window on how to use derogations, because in Clause 63 it says that the principle of no satisfactory solution has been met. So the court confirmed that we have a right to derogate….”

And yet nobody has ever questioned the right to derogate. It’s there in Birds Directive, under article 9. What remains contested is whether this right applies to the issue of hunting in spring. The court did not rule on this point. So how can this ruling be taken to mean we can now allow spring hunting indefinitely?

“Because after the Commission had complained about the flawed derogations, the court approved our future derogations, stating that we have satisfied the conditions…”

I point out that he is deliberately reading too much into that sentence. “Do remember also that we got into Europe by means of a referendum, where it was stated in black on white that if once Malta joined it would apply a derogation for spring hunting. Everyone who went to vote knew exactly what he was voting for. If he didn’t like it, he had his chance then to oppose the derogation…”

That’s hardly a convincing argument, I reply. For one thing, when you vote in a referendum on accession, you vote on a whole raft of issues. So the result cannot be interpreted as a verdict on spring hunting alone. Secondly, the alternative at the time was not to join Europe, which would have meant spring hunting anyway. So there wasn’t even a choice.

But to stick to the European court ruling for a moment. The derogation for a spring hunting season concerns two species, turtle dove and quail. These are both classified as ‘vulnerable’ and ‘in decline’ in Europe. Yet the government representatives who argued the case in the European Court cited the IUCN Red List - which refers to global populations, including Asia, Africa, the Americas, etc. - where turtle dove and quail are considered ‘of least concern’.

Isn’t this a dishonest strategy? At the end of the day, the specimens shot by Maltese hunters would be on their way to nest in Europe. So surely it is the European status that counts, not the global one…

Mifsud Bonnici however disputes the European conservation status. “You get countries like the UK pushing forward the point that turtle dove is on the brink of extinction. What they don’t specify is that it is only happening in the UK, because of their agricultural practices. If you look at the management plan for Europe, you will note that in France, which is just below England, turtle dove populations are increasing.

"Also, the central Mediterranean population of turtle dove is on the increase, believe it or not. And there are seven countries shooting turtle dove in that area: including Italy, Greece, Cyprus, and Malta. Yet the populations are stable, and not decreasing. As a general trend, the decreases in Europe are only attributable to northern countries where the bird is being replaced by another species known to shift any dove that breeds in its area: the collared dove. The management plan even says that all the data needs to be revised, because nothing is known for certain. This is all supposition, that it is declining in Europe...”

It seems to me that Mifsud Bonnici trusts statistics and official documents only when these help strengthen the hunters’ case… yet disputes any statistics which argue the opposite point of view. His own earlier argument regarding the accession referendum is a case in point. He now refers to the 2003 referendum to justify spring hunting, while his own hunting association has just filed objections to the holding of another referendum specifically on this issue. Isn’t this a contradiction?

“But there’s a reason why we are objecting. Basically we don’t think a referendum should be held on that issue.”

Why not?

“Because it’s part of a treaty, and we’ll argue the rest in court. The referendum law precludes holding a referendum on part of a treaty Malta has entered into. It’s written in black on white...”

Is it? What’s written in the referendum law is that it cannot be applied to “any legislation giving effect to any treaty obligation” - Chap. 237, V, 2(g). Spring hunting is not a treaty obligation. In fact’s it’s not even part of any treaty. It’s a derogation – therefore, by definition, an exception to the treaty…

Mifsud Bonnici disagrees. “A derogation is part of the treaty. You derogate because you have a right to derogate. It is a right we have as European citizens, please note…”

Well, so is the right to hold a referendum. And in this case, the referendum calls on the government to say: we don’t want this derogation to be applied. This is a right Maltese law allows its citizens. Who are the hunters to try and deny people this right?

“We are challenging that right in court. At the end of the day, we think we’re right, the others say they’re right… we’ll let the court decide. But we have our points that we would like to submit as to our objections to holding this referendum, and we think they’re quite valid…”

Speaking of these efforts: hunters claim to have collected 100,000 signatures for a petition to block this referendum. At the same time, they are calling on the government to ensure that the referendum is held on a standalone basis. There are a lot of contradictions here: do hunters want to block this referendum, or not? On a separate level they claim to represent over one third of the entire electorate. So why are hunters so scared of this referendum? If their own claims are correct, they should win it hands down.

“Nobody said we’re scared…”

Why try to stop it, then?

“Our point is that the referendum should not be held because it is illegal. It cannot be held on this issue. That is our point. The fact that we have so much support…”

Does he really believe in the level of support? “Yes, I think we do. People who get trampled upon as we have will surely raise their eyebrows, especially if they know how this issue has been handled over the past years. It was all exaggerated, built on media spin and exaggerations… on people like Chris Packham, who comes here and depicts Malta as a kind of hell on earth, but then doesn’t manage to film a single bird getting shot…”

Yet we’ve all seen plenty of footage of protected birds being shot…

“So have I. But I’ve also seen plenty of hunters out there doing nothing wrong. There are 10,000 hunters in Malta, and I can assure you if they were all hunting illegally you wouldn’t be able to walk in the streets with all the dead birds. But that’s not the case. It is all a spin, for financial reasons I would say. There are people benefitting from this. I will mention just one instance: when Chris Packham asked for help for BirdLife Malta, they raised 50,000 in two days...”

But that’s not the same as making money directly off the killing of birds. Last I looked it was hunters who shot protected birds to sell as trophies for thousands of euros a specimen…

Mifsud Bonnici acknowledges there are rotten apples in all spheres. “But why do we only look at hunting? What about illegal fishing? I fish myself, and I’m sick and tired of seeing nets thrown in. Sometimes I have to pull up my line because a net drifts over it. Why is nobody making a fuss about this? Because there’s no money in it…”

Well, as it happens I did raise the issue of illegal fishing in the press a few years ago. And there is plenty of money in it, mostly concerning the bluefin tuna trade. But let’s not get too distracted…  

“My point is that this fuss is only being made about hunting. Take the merger between the three English language newspapers for instance. If you ask me, it was vile. Now we have three newspapers suddenly taking an anti-hunting stand… so how am I to approach these newspapers, and get our side across to their readers, if they’ve all declared themselves against us? And has it ever happened before? On what other issue have these newspapers chosen to unite?”

Offhand I can’t think of any: but this only underscores an element that the hunters have so far refused to acknowledge. The merger was a reaction to what many perceive – not without good reason – to be a clear attack on democracy. The hunters are trying to block a referendum. It is not a laughing matter. There are implications that go beyond hunting. Our most basic rights may be taken away from us. This is what the merger is all about...

“But what is the referendum about? Is it about spring hunting, or illegal hunting? This is the problem. The referendum addresses the derogation, which is legal – upheld by the European court – and not the issue of illegal hunting. And that’s where you’re wrong in having a merger. Had you joined forces to stop illegal hunting, you’d have got the backing of all legal hunters. But you are against spring hunting, because you follow BirdLife’s flawed reasoning which the European court has dismissed…”

This brings us round in a circle. Proponents of the referendum view spring hunting as illegal…

“In that case, let the courts decide. If the referendum is legal it will happen. If not, it won’t…”