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.

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