Monthly Archives: August 2016

On much-needed reform at PBS

The state of our public broadcasting services has long been considered problematic. The lack of intelligent and cultural content on Television Malta still makes PBS look like a broadcaster intended to serve interests other than those of the public it is obliged to broadcast to. Labour has promised to bring change and improve PBS but, until now, change has come only in very small doses which have hardly left any substantial mark.

Some progress has been made in respect to the fact that the newsroom’s editorial line, now coordinated by Reno Bugeja, is much less partisan than it used to be under the previous administration. This is not to absolve Reno Bugeja of any faults and neither do I want to imply that I would prefer his editorial line from others, however this must be inevitably accredited, given political interference in PBS is still perceived as a problem by the general public. The introduction of diverse journalistic talk shows was also a good step-forward, but the retraction of “Times Talk” from the schedule may be proof that this might change once again. Yet, the problems of PBS are not restricted to partisan influence and in fact, political intervention might actually solve some problems if done with a concrete and legitimate aim.

Let’s sit through a day of television brought to us by Television Malta. Most of the programmes we watch are shabby and mediocre and seem to have been packaged, presented and directed according to the Bad Italian Television Handbook. Mediocre talk shows during which nothing is actually said, dramas which sound like they have been scripted by a secondary-school student, and the news. Then on Friday night, there’s the regular and ceremonial promotion of ignorance and populism in the form of Joe “Peppi” Azzopardi’s Xarabank.

Indeed, it seems we are all in agreement that TVM needs more cultural and intelligent content and a quantum leap in the quality of artistic productions. What’s stopping this from happening is the inherent ideological culture in public broadcasting which considers and treats its potential audience as an uneducated mass and this despite the fact that in terms of education our country has made great advances.

Given this ideological perception, it is no wonder that even one of TVM’s rare cultural programmes presented culture and knowledge in a stupid way. As the ideology goes, the only way you could feed people minimal amounts of knowledge is by ‘keeping it simple and fun otherwise it wouldn’t be understood, let alone enjoyed’. Salvu Mallia’s programme used the ‘funny idiot’ deriding himself as he was confronted with new knowledge, resembling the typical, literary fool like Mastru Gerfex or Fra Mudest: a character endemic to a culture that perpetuates unlearning by essentially corroborating fun with ignorance.

But Mallia only happens to be a ‘culprit’ for the sake of my argument. He is not actually part of the problem, but a small and harmless fish next to champion and gold-medalist of the dumbing-down Olympics, Joe “Peppi” Azzopardi. Now, no one can deny that Xarabank is essentially stupid and even Joe Azzaoprdi, the presenter of the programme, himself admits this with a straight face and live in front of his audience. The mantra of Joe Azzopardi is to make a programme “of and for the people” which “anyone could understand”, and a programme in which everyone is allowed to say anything in public even if it is stupid or personal bordering on intimate. But how can you actually defeat a populist monster which justifies itself with simplistic notions of populism, whilst making lots of money in the process? You need political intervention to stop that, and yet, until now, no one has had the courage to do so.

If we were to allow the ultimate fulfillment of the principle that ratings and money justify public broadcasting content, then we might as well turn TVM into the most deranged service and make a cash cow out of it. You could argue that Xarabank is even more dangerous than pornography, when it directly promotes ignorance with its equal-level platform and tolerance to all opinions and kinds of discourse, whatever these opinions and discourses might be.

Now, of course, we live in a free society and we have the right to speak and say what we want, but if what you want to say is stupid, you don’t necessarily have the right to say it on primetime television. If you think that ‘we will get Ebola by eating fish which happened to eat dead immigrants’ in the Mediterranean sea then the best place for you is either a school or a mental asylum, and not on primetime television.

In principle, there is nothing which can really justify bad content on the public broadcasting service because as an entity it is self-explanatory: a public broadcaster should be of service to the people and to be of service to the people means it provides the public with news, knowledge and intelligent content and not waste its resources on entertaining one and all as if its sole aim is to produce one big loud circus.

I don’t believe people are stupid. Many Maltese watch local television because it’s the only thing they can watch in Maltese, so an increase in intelligent and cultural content at PBS can eventually increase ratings and viewership. This is not a pipe-dream – this is reality and the market proves it.

As people are increasingly spending their money on Netflix, cable and satellite television, as well as content on the internet, I find it hard to imagine that it would occur to anyone to pay for content similar to what usually airs on TVM. People are not as stupid as Joe “Peppi” Azzopardi would like you to believe.

Literary and book circles are disappointed at cutbacks in shelving space

Only recently, the Agenda bookshop in the exclusive departures section of the Malta International Airport has been replaced with the WHSmith franchise. Unfortunately, this is not good news. Only one side of the shop remains dedicated to books and the rest is now stocked with food, drinks and magazines. In retail terms, the bookshop has turned into a newsagent.

The prospect of the major book-chain in Malta making space for a new franchise of shops that fully comply with the definition of a newsagent seems very worrying. Yet, this change seems peculiar given the healthy indicators of the book market. According to NSO statistics from 2010 to 2014, the total retail value of books sold by all local distributors and bookshops in Malta increased by an average of 4% per year and it is predicted that forthcoming statistics will reconfirm this increasing trend. Over all, book imports both in wholesale terms made by bookshops and distributors and in terms of individual purchases made through the internet are also increasing.

Agenda bookshop is practically the backbone of the book industry in Malta and most of the players in the book industry depend on it – a small change in the infrastructure of its operations will of course easily affect the rest of the industry. The fight to retain shelving and thus conserve the market platform from which locally published books are sold along with their international counterparts is hardly only a Miller Distributors issue (Miller Distributors being the current owner of both the local Agenda chain and the WHSmith franchise) but an issue that is much broader in nature and which probably has to do with the general culture of how business is conducted in Malta.

In Malta we do not have the privilege of debating whether private capital patronage of the arts is acting as a complement to the power and influence of the elite. Instead, cultural patronage in Malta is so rare that the government has ended up in the awkward situation of actually having to beg for cultural patronage with desperate measures. The Arts Council has recently announced a scheme to grant a maximum of 150% tax rebate capped at €50,000 to cultural patrons.

The scheme will of course reap immediate benefits for the arts community if it actually comes to the attention of anyone with enough capital to spend, but the scheme itself is also testament to the tragic situation in which culture, the arts and, as a consequence, even research and development, are shunned by our local business elite. These are the sectors of the economy which, at face value, look risky and difficult to succeed in, however they are also sectors which provide sustainability in the long-term and added-value to the economy. Surely, in order to succeed in these sectors one has to be creative and creativity is hard to find in the local business class.

The concept of obtaining quick and easy profits is endemic in the local business culture and this is also reflected in the recurring pattern of how capital is invested. In Malta we have no shortage of mega-millionaires and mega-businesses as the profits of major supermarkets and the relentless construction opportunities which are now leading us to the sky (and maybe even beyond) can attest. What’s surely lacking is a sense of sustainability, a sense of commitment to the general development of the economy and society even in cultural and educational terms. It seems that the only option available for the local elite to clear their conscience is to annually donate a small part of their surplus to charity.

The fact that major private capital investment in the property industry is being made loosely and following no clear direction or sense of planning whatsoever is quite clear and evident to all. In the wake of the excessive (and rising) cowboy investment in the construction and property industry, Minister of Finance Edward Scicluna has come across as the voice of reason when he insisted that investment should be well planned so as to avoid overheating and overcapacity. Still, it seems that reason only thrives in limited corners of the local business industry and it generally fades away unnoticed like a noble gas.

All of this can change, but not with tax incentives – in the long-term and considering our current condition these types of tax incentives will serve to augment the idea that investing money in the arts, culture or research development is only a rare form of charity which doesn’t give enough credit in return, so much so that it needs to be incentivised by the government.

The government needs to start making clear and strong demands on the business elite. If mega-millionaires are being allowed to make mega-profits, the least the government can do is instill a sense of responsibility and commitment in the big business community towards the general economic-social, cultural and intellectual health of society and not just make sure they are committed to the rule of law. Alas, the situation in this regard is so dire that even commitment to the rule of law is lacking and I need not mention the many times persistent law breaking by the rich and powerful went unpunished, such as for example the irregular fish farming practices which are contaminating our shores with slime, the illegal Montekristo Zoo and the countless infringements in the construction industry.

As for the book industry, the National Book Council has always worked closely with private players in the industry and is always available to collaborate with such entities to support the long-term sustainability of the industry, including Miller Distributors itself. There is clear room for growth in the book industry and this is why it is inevitable for literary and book circles to feel disappointed with any cutback in shelving space available in the market, especially in a prime location such as the international airport.

On the other hand, the Malta International Airport shouldn’t be spared any excuses. It is a shame that despite the fact that MIA keeps boasting of record passenger figures and its four-star SKYTRAX status, it then compromises its commitment to local culture, arts and literature. The existence of proper bookshops at the exclusive departures area of MIA is not only an expectation shared by several passengers who pass through the airport, but also by the local Maltese community who share a dedication and passion for our culture and our literary and artistic heritage.

The threat of Islamic terror and our freedom of speech

When in March 2014 Saudi Arabia passed a decree criminalising atheism and making it equivalent to a terrorist offence, an online wave of Islamic blasphemy and vilification was initiated by Saudi activists as a form of resistance.

Saudi atheists started uploading pictures of shredded Qurans with messages underneath saying “Proud to be atheist”. Hafsa, a 23-year old Saudi woman, posted pictures on her twitter account of herself stepping on a shredded Quran with red high-heeled shoes. In another picture, she is seen stepping on a Quran with her bare feet and toenails painted pink.

Hafsa is not the only Arab woman making feminist statements against Islam. Alia Magda Elmahdy is an Egyptian member of Femen and has stirred various controversies with her actions, some of which included pictures of herself defecating on an ISIS flag and topless protests against the hijab and Islamic patriarchy.

On the other hand, a number of popular authors and activists in Europe have also expressed themselves against Islam in what comes across as an offensive way. In 2002 Michel Houellebecq was taken to court by Muslim organisations for saying that Islam was “stupid” and “dangerous”, but the courts acquitted him of any misdemeanour.

Indeed, the far right, which panders to the uneducated and the disenfranchised with racist discourse against Muslims and immigrants, does not have a monopoly on the vilification of Islam. Vilification cannot be defined objectively and its use and essence is subjective to its conditions, content and intent and there are many different forms and levels of religious vilification.

This is why cutting a straight line in legal terms by banning any form of vilification on religion will naturally not only impact racist discourse, but will impact other sections of society such as the arts. We have experienced this already with incidents and cases which happened under the previous Lawrence Gonzi administration. Jason Azzopardi, who has crusaded against Labour’s anti-censorship reforms, was a Cabinet member under Gonzi’s administration and is now aspiring to become Justice and Home Affairs minister.

In response to the recent desecration of the Quran in the prayer room of Mater Dei Hospital, Simon Busuttil and Jason Azzopardi have stepped up their campaign against these anti-censorship reforms by claiming they give outright permission for such acts to take place. But what happened at Mater Dei has already been described by lawyers as a crime which can be prosecuted by the current legal framework, including the hate crime laws.

Some very important considerations a court of law makes about such a case is the context and the intent. If an artist desecrates and vilifies the Quran as part of his or her art exhibition in an enclosed space used for artistic purposes then there wouldn’t be a problem and no one would be prosecuted; but given the fact that the context of the desecration of the Quran which happened at Mater Dei was an act of vandalism in a public space used for holy worship, the law against hate speech may easily become applicable. There is also the issue of the intent and this would have to be explained by the defendant. The Mater Dei desecration act can lead to a prosecution even with laws protecting public property and the public peace.

Jason Azzopardi betrays an underlying and very dangerous populist message which has to be fought on ideological grounds by those who cherish freedom and democracy.

The Nationalists are supporting an outright ban on the vilification of religion in any case and context. They once proposed that instead of removing the vilification law, a new law should be introduced which excludes artists from the vilification law, but such a proposal is downright stupid and even unconstitutional because rights are universal and cannot be granted selectively.

The Nationalists believe that vilification should be a crime punishable by law because they believe that it is a gravely immoral act, but they claim that the most important reason for such a law is to preserve law and order in society and to prevent the provocation of violence. Now it is also clear that when the Nationalists mention the issue of national security and violent provocations they also allude to Islamic terrorists, itself a scandalously wrong assumption.

The notion that a vilification law is needed for national security defeats its own purpose. You do not need to be a security expert to understand that parading people to court for vilifying Islam will only exacerbate security problems due to the fact that you’re making martyrs out of so called vilifiers, making the vilifying act which was the object of the prosecution even more popular in the process.

The new laws as introduced by Labour do not give such a platform to those who want to vilify religions. Secondly, Simon Busuttil and Jason Azzopardi are not only empirically wrong in their assessment of the consequences of the law or the lack of it, but these are words that actually propagate this kind of fear of Islamic terrorism, which ultimately only serves would-be terrorists who’d relish in dividing us and instigating hate between us. It is in this way that the Nationalist party is stooping so low as to use the Islamic terrorist issue for partisan reasons and those who do so are of course very irresponsible, unaware of what they are actually implying and even dangerous.

By invoking the idea of national security to conserve vilification laws, Simon Busuttil and Jason Azzopardi are directly promoting the idea that we should give up on our rights (rights which may even seem to be frivolous or irrelevant to some) for the sake of our own security – this is exactly what Islamic terrorists want us to do. Such political messages based on fear only give more strength to the aim of terrorism.

As Europe faces an increasing number of terrorist attacks by Islamists fighting a violent jihad against Western civilisation, there are two directions that our democracies can take. We can either move into an advanced capitalist dystopia where the right to private property and security are fully preserved against new restrictions on our freedoms, or we may fight a spiritual war for peaceful coexistence between different religions whilst preserving our most fundamental European rights and our way of living.

I am very optimistic about the future of Europe and I strongly believe that Europe is collectively moving in the latter step, even if for example, Saudi Arabia or other Arab-Muslim countries have occasionally made great pressure on EU institutions to introduce and increase blasphemy laws as was the case after the Danish cartoons were published in 2005.

In 2006, Javier Solana, the EU’s coordinator of foreign policy assured the Saudis that the EU would do its best to prevent any form of vilification of Islam and even prevent any further caricatures of Muhammed to be published. Naturally, Europe, being the continent of freedom, was unmoved by the pressure from the Saudis as just a couple of years later in Sweden, a country which has no blasphemy laws whatsoever, cartoons depicting Muhammed were again published without any legal consequences.

In 2007 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe issued a document outlining its proposal for the abolishment of blasphemy and religious vilification laws across the European continent. In 2008 the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression issued a declaration stating that restrictions on freedom of speech “should be limited in scope to the protection of overriding individual rights and social interests, and should never be used to protect particular institutions, or abstract notions, concepts or beliefs, including religious ones”.

As of today, only a minority of European states have existing laws outlawing blasphemy and religious vilification or are actually enforcing them. The UK removed blasphemy laws in 2008, the Netherlands removed its blasphemy laws in 2014 and Norway abolished its blasphemy laws last year after a 10-year process. Iceland removed its blasphemy laws in 2015 in reaction to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. Denmark, which Azzopardi has been using as his favourite example of a liberal country with religious blasphemy laws, hasn’t used its blasphemy laws since 1938 despite the fact that Danish cartoonists have vilified Muhammed several times over. These are all facts that were conveniently avoided to mention during a campaign of misinformation and lies in the press and in parliament on Labour’s reform of censorship laws.

Labour in Malta is today an advanced liberal party which takes strong positions on civil liberties based on points of principle without resorting to dangerous populist measures. The concept of law adhered to by Labour is in line with the current and predominant form of European thinking on the right to freedom of speech: the line to free speech ends when the incitement to hatred and violence begins.

We may be disappointed with much that is said and done online on blogs, newspapers and in televised debates, but this is the world we live in and we cannot prosecute and imprison people for their thoughts and beliefs even if they might seem stupid, insulting or offensive to us – if we don’t accept this reality then we do not understand the basic fundamentals of democracy.

Joseph Muscat has said we have to stay vigilant and not resort to racism, but we also have to remain vigilant when it comes to our fights and freedoms. We should not lose our rights due to populist and dangerous dystopian ideas. On blasphemy and religious vilification laws the PN is not only misinformed and incongruous with its own purpose, but it is downright dangerous.

The line is clear and the current legal framework strikes a balance between our freedom and society’s security. As much as we should fight hatred and racism, we should also preserve our rights in a fast-changing globalised civilisation. The insular thinking of the Nationalists is regressive and dangerous.

What’s next after Bill 113?

Finally, Bill 113, the anti-censorship bill presented in parliament by Minister of Justice and Culture Owen Bonnici, which contained nearly all the reforms proposed by the Front Against Censorship in its manifesto, has been enacted by parliament. In doing so Labour has fulfilled an electoral pledge to reform censorship laws on the arts, but this was not a simple task. Sadly, many politicians in our House of Parliament still need to grapple with the basics of the fundamental right to free expression. These kinds of politicians have an insular-mindset and barely read any books and this is partly the reason why they cannot come to terms with the idea that the right to offend comes part and parcel with the right to free speech.

Six years ago, when Bonnici had publicly declared his stance against the then current pornography law, a journalist from the Nationalist Party’s media arm confronted him and asked him to read Alex Vella Gera’s infamous short story ‘Li Tkisser Sewwi’ on record. Bonnici, a young, erudite, but very humble and calm-natured person was vexed and confounded. The reporter obviously, had never heard about the popular maxim by Evelyn Beatrice Hall “I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” and Bonnici wasn’t expecting to be confronted with such ignorance.

Back then, the Nationalist Party took an antagonistic stance against the Front Against Censorship and against artists. Their media arm lied blatantly and in the most dishonest manner about Bonnici, Vella Gera and myself. They went as far as to accuse us of glorifying rape and pedophilia and they vilified us in the most obscene and dishonest manner, all along while taking the moral high stand in defending the criminalisation of the vilification of religion.

Carmelo Mifsud-Bonnici, the then Minister of Justice and Home Affairs even took up the task to make the pornography law even harsher while the infamous ‘Li Tkisser Sewwi’ case was still ongoing in court.

However, now that it seems obvious that Labour and the Front against Censorship were then on the right side of history, the Nationalists have mellowed their stance on the pornography law. Bonnici, has also been vindicated. Somehow, sticking to your principle when you are right can pay off.

The pornography law (article 208 of the criminal code) has been amended to come on par with the British version. With the previous pornography law, artists, writers and publishers could be prosecuted for producing and distributing pornographic content. The then law defined pornography in very ambiguous terms, making any form of sexual activity depicted in an artistic context objectionable.

Bill 113 has decriminalised the production and distribution of pornography as long as this is not “extreme”, or distributed to children. Pornography will be defined by ministerial order through the Government Gazette and the new definitions, also based on the British model, describe pornography as an image which depicts sexual activity with the intent of sexual arousal. The definition itself precludes the possibility that literature would once again be described as pornographic. Literature is not an image: it is made up of words. Examples of extreme pornography are pornography with real cases of rape, necrophilia and bestiality.

Ignorance is not the only reason why politicians oppose our right to free speech. Attacking the Church and vilifying religion is also dangerous, not only for the Church and religion itself, but even to those politicians who use religion as a means to consolidate their influence and power. We are experiencing this very clearly once again today on the issue of the morning-after pill.

It is understandable that the Nationalist Party has shown such strong opposition to the removal of laws which it enacted itself in 1933 to protect its politically meddlesome religious allies back in its fascist heyday.

In the 1830s, the British could only institute a free press in Malta as long as the interests of the Church were not threatened. The Church was strongly opposed to the introduction of a free press in Malta as this was a possible threat to its interests and control of society. In 1839, the free press was only introduced with a libel law which was meant to prohibit any criticism to the Church and the Catholic religion. This is why Labour has made a significant and historic break in the history of Maltese censorship law: Labour has abolished the British-introduced concept that freedom of speech should come on the condition that it doesn’t hurt the religious sentiments of the Church and its clerics.

Of course, I have nothing but words of praise for Labour’s direction in this field of law, but this is not the end of the line. Labour still needs to strike off the now defunct obscenity law of the Press Act in order to be able to say that it has fulfilled 100% of the proposals of Front Against Censorship’s manifesto. We are being told by the government that a comprehensive reform to the Press Act is nearly complete and this is why it wasn’t included in Bill 113.

We should keep up the pressure on Labour to keep delivering in the field of freedom of speech. We should allow journalists and writers even more freedoms, although we will undoubtedly find more opposition by politicians, this time round, probably even more ferociously as such laws protect the direct interests of politicians themselves. Still I am very optimistic. Time and time again, Labour has proved itself to be the party which pushes even against all odds for the enactment and fulfillment of civil rights, so I am very optimistic that we can still work with Labour to bring down even more draconian laws. The way the Prime Minister handled Bill 113, maturely, but confidently, also gives me more reason that we will eventually be able to win even more battles in this field under Labour.