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.