Monthly Archives: May 2016

Books in our education system

Simply having good intentions does not make you eligible to be minister of education and this is why I am rather irked by the partisan comments some lawyer-politicians are making in the name of good intentions and the residual patronising determination to do “so much good and progress”. The education system is a large and complex system which along the years has been often abused by lawyer-politicians to promote their good will, and this has often resulted in the creation of serious defects in the system.

One of the major defects that our education system had accumulated over the years was that books other than the standard curricula textbooks, were nearly completely missing from our schools. Rather than instilling the love of reading and books in children, the system presented books to children only as tools for their academic study. Under the current government administration, this whole culture of books in the education system is being turned around in the most radical manner.

One of the first things I did when entering office in the National Book Council, was to collaborate with my colleagues at the Education Ministry to analyse the situation relating to books in schools and the education system. We visited schools, toured school libraries and classes and interviewed teachers and headmasters.

What we had encountered was truly shocking. Schools, which were allocated a very small budget to cover all administrative and maintenance expenses, barely afforded to buy books for their class and school libraries. Some pro-active headmasters used to organise fund-raising events so as to have some extra cash to buy books, while other headmasters went without buying office supplies so that they were able to purchase a small number of books for their libraries.

At first we couldn’t believe that books, one of the most important educational tools in the system, had been sidelined, if not ignored, for so long. The situation was simply absurd, but this absurdity would reach comical levels when I used to visit classrooms and find out that the only books available for extra-curricular reading were books which go back to the date when I myself sat at the school bench.

Thanks to the National Book Council, and the National Literacy Agency under a coordinated effort by the Education Department and Ministry, more than two million euros in books and reading resources are to be distributed in schools and classes all over Malta by the end of 2017. The books and resources are being distributed according to a programme set up by the National Literacy Agency with the aim of covering all of Malta’s schools with new books and resources.

Much focus is being given to class libraries so that books are directly and easily accessible to children. The Agency is also giving courses and direction on how books and reading material is presented to children. This large-scale coordinated effort is just one of the many initiatives and reforms that the current Ministry of Education has spearheaded in order to address serious problems in the education system.

We must not allow to have generations of students leaving school thinking that books are the equivalent of a users’ manual to a consumerist object. Books are the key to the success of our future generations and we must present books to children as tools of knowledge, creativity and also pure fun and enjoyment. This is what we are trying to achieve through the Malta Book Festival which, this year, is to be held from the 9th to the 13th November at MCC.

At the Malta Book Festival, we give each child and student visiting during morning hours with one’s school or class, a €3 book voucher and this is to ensure that every child visiting the Book Festival leaves with a book in his or her hand. The Festival welcomes school-children in a festive and celebratory atmosphere with book characters who come alive as they interact with the children. While children browse through the endless book shelves, a book character might come their way dissolving in the process the boundaries between the fantastic and the real. This formula has worked excellently in last year’s Festival and we will be repeating this formula once again with even greater theatrics.

We are looking forward for this year’s Book Festival and we are proud of how we have developed the Book Festival from a bazaar into a fully-fledged celebration of reading and books. It is in the same way that the Ministry of Education and the National Book Council would like to change the reading culture in our education system: from a curriculum necessity, into a celebration of knowledge, fantasy and life.

Don’t kill Bill 113

The vilification of religion law is also a draconian and authoritarian law used simply and solely for the sake of protecting clerics and the Catholic religion.

Claudette Buttigieg, the Nationalist MP and former daytime presenter whose Eurotrash outing always seems to be brought up in the House by opponents, recently made a scathing attack in parliament on Bill 113, saying that the law criminalising the vilification of religion should be retained, with an exception for artists.

So according to Buttigieg, she wants a law that allows artists to vilify religion, but no such law for ordinary citizens.

There are no good intentions behind the squalid and garbled rhetoric of the Nationalist Party on their opposition to Bill 113. Their opposition to the law is only a form of pandering to their conservative audiences, who literally have no idea what the Bill is all about. Claudette Buttigieg and Jason Azzopardi are making flamboyant speeches in the House attacking Bill 113 only to take the supposedly high, albeit artificial moral ground. There is a word for that: it is called populism.

It is evident that these idiotic theatrics are not just fodder for Xarabank. In parliament, Jason Azzopardi presented a number of ‘Charlie Hebdo’ newspapers and said: “God forbid these kind of publications are produced in Malta”.

Azzopardi and Buttigieg have no well-reasoned arguments for their position, and the neo-clerical and neo-conservative position of their party is only a complement to a narrative which gives them a false and artificial moral high ground. By opposing Bill 113, Azzopardi and Buttigieg might genuinely believe that they are protecting the clerical and Catholic establishment, but first and foremost they are sensationalising an issue out of purely egoistic and partisan interests. And the consequences of their egotism are very serious.

The Nationalist Party is dead serious in its intention to send to prison people who might be offensive to the Catholic establishment and its clerics. This is no joke. Indeed, Azzopardi is also one of the ex-Cabinet members under the Gonzi administration who approved increasing penalties and lengthier prison sentences for people found guilty of breaking pornography laws, whilst Alex Vella Gera and myself were being dragged to the court by the police, and charged according to the same pornography laws.

The truth is very different from the insular and parochial monologues of Azzopardi and Buttigieg.

Bill 113 aims to reduce censorship instruments on the production and distribution of art. Practically, right now, the production and distribution of pornography in Malta is illegal and the ambiguous nature of the law might lead to artists being prosecuted under pornography laws – no one needs to be reminded, yet again, of what happened with the infamous “Li Tkisser Sewwi” case.

The vilification of religion law is also a draconian and authoritarian law used simply and solely for the sake of protecting clerics and the Catholic religion. Under the Gonzi administration, when artists were considered as legitimate targets of the State, the police used the vilification law to prosecute a deejay, and shut down a satirical and theatrical play on the devil being performed at the Nadur carnival. Some of us are not as stupid as Azzopardi and Buttigieg want us to be – we, writers and artists, won’t compromise our freedoms, especially if these compromises are made for the sake of egoistic and partisan reasons.

Labour is taking a bold step to weaken censorship laws on the arts by amending the Criminal Code; but Labour’s step, although a genuine effort to help artists and writers, is also being introduced in a spirit of compromise with the conservative elements of our society. That’s because Bill 113 is not as diabolical as the Archbishop of Malta would like you to think. Bill 113 criminalises the distribution of pornography in public spaces and gives a wide degree of protection to children; Bill 113 provides increased protection for religious communities by strengthening laws which protect their right to worship, and Bill 113 also criminalises, in the clearest of ways, “extreme pornography” in the same way that English law does.

Practically, Bill 113 will bring Maltese law in line with European law, so Azzopardi is not saying the truth when he claims that the vilification of religion is disallowed in Europe. The regulations which are related to Bill 113 also define in clear terms what pornography and extreme pornography are, so as to reduce legal ambiguities. Pornography is defined as a product made solely with the intent of creating sexual arousal and literature will be totally exempt from pornography laws because pornography is defined as a visual product and is restricted to the media of imagery and film. Extreme pornography is material which showcases real cases of violent pornography such as rape.

And what of the vilification of religion? By removing the vilification law, Labour would have done a truly progressive step forward. When freedom of the press was first introduced in Malta in 1839, the Church opposed this freedom because freedom of speech would have challenged its hold over the people. So, when freedom of the press was first introduced in the Islands, the British had also introduced the first censorship laws which were specifically aimed to prevent any challenging criticism on the Catholic Church.

Fast-forward some 100 years later: when the Nationalist government received funds and support from Benito Mussolini and his fascists, the Nationalists introduced the vilification law in 1933 to keep strengthening the Church’s hold over the minds of the people.

God forbid anyone vilify religion, for you would not only go to hell, but also to prison.

Well, we are in 2016, so the vilification law should go: stating otherwise is blasphemy and vilification of our freedom.