Statement on the Murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia

It is with deep sorrow that we mourn the loss of Daphne Caruana Galizia, killed in a planned attack with a car-bomb in her hometown earlier today. No journalist and writer should suffer this fate and the state should ensure that all writers and journalists are able to work in a safe environment, free from harassment and intimidation. It is of the utmost importance, for the sake of our democracy and our way of life, that the perpetrators of this horrible killing be brought to justice, not only to serve the required punishment, but also to bring to light the real motivation of this horrible attack. Undoubtedly, this is a very difficult day for the relatives and family of Daphne Caruana Galizia, but it is also a difficult day for our democracy. In such difficult moments, it is with adamant resolution that one may face the forces of terror so as not to allow these forces to instill fear amongst our community of writers and journalists

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Worst of times for public broadcasting

Recently, a film producer who was awarded a PBS and Arts Council grant of €100,000 to produce a dramatic film about Carmelo Borg Pisani, went on record saying that we need to tell the story of Carmelo Borg Pisani with an “open mind”. The film producer will be using public funds to create a dramatic film on Borg Pisani based on a poorly-researched book by Laurence Mizzi, which portrays Borg Pisani as an admirable person with views too romantic to be dangerous.

In the 1940s, as Jews, Russians and Europeans alike were forced into a war not of their own making by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, the victims of war did not have the privilege to think about Nazis and Fascists with an open mind. With Europe under the yoke of Nazi Germany and its fascist allies, Jews were faced with genocide on an industrial scale and Western Russians had to fight against the threat of military annihilation. Historical revisionism cannot be more grating and objectionable as when it attempts to relieve the guilt from perpetrators of some of the most horrible crimes in history.

It is beyond shameful and outrageous that the Arts Council and PBS should award such a coveted grant to a project of historical revisionism. Borg Pisani was a fascist and a traitor whose decision to spy on Malta for the Italians during the height of the Second World War was taken on by him in full conviction of his perverse and fascist beliefs. The facts are well known and presenting them otherwise for the sake of being “open minded” is outright dishonesty. In PBS’s statement, made by the chairman of the adjudication board which awarded the grant, Tony Cassar Darien, not even once was it mentioned that Borg Pisani was a fascist.

These are indeed the worst of times for public broadcasting in Malta. From the Kim Kardashian Reality-TV clone show of Benjamin Camilleri (apparently, Ben Camille as he describes himself), to prime time Xarabank waging outright war on the education system, and publicly-funded films revising the history of noted fascists and convicted traitors, PBS has reached a level of decadence unprecedented even by our abysmal standards. Yet, the Minister of Culture, Owen Bonnici, seems unperturbed by all this. He seems to share those same populist views that Peppi Azzopardi of Xarabank fame publicly espouses: since we have freedom of speech anything may go on the public broadcaster.

The point of having a public broadcaster is to provide citizens with a service of news, information, education and culture. A public broadcaster should not be used with the sole aim of entertaining the masses, and such kind of thinking is so perverse that it may theoretically justify the broadcasting of hardcore pornography. The populist views upheld by Peppi Azzopardi and his likes are actually in tune with the idea of public broadcasting under dictatorships. It is under dictatorships that public broadcasting is used to broadcast safe and brainless entertainment, shallow programming with little or no relevant information at all, puerile and insular political debates, and dramatic art with a revisionist agenda. Here in Malta we have a public broadcaster which would make a tin-pot South East Asian dictator proud.

The malaise afflicting the public broadcaster is no different from the blight that has befallen the Arts Council and the Valletta 18 Foundation. The motivation underpinning their allocation of funds does not seem to emerge from an informed vision. Decisions are not being made on the basis of sound educational and cultural principles, but simply on the need to support the vanity projects of friends and allies of politicians and officials in power. And this is why incompetent people are being appointed to high positions within important State institutions by the Ministry of Culture or by the appointees of the minister.

Take for example the adjudication board which granted the money to produce the Carmelo Borg Pisani film. It was composed of Audrey Harrison, an ex-MEPA employee who was then employed at the Film Commission by the Labour government and who appears on IMDB as an actress in one feature film; Anthony Attard, who is the executive director of the Arts Council and has background in theatre; and a priest called Joseph Henry Abela, who apparently has published a book on how people should live their lives. The chairman of the adjudication board, Tony Cassar Darien, is a playwright who writes slapstick drama, the kind you would see and read without needing the help of any grey matter to digest it. Basically, no one on the adjudication board knows jack about cinema and history and yet these people had the authority to grant the €100,000 fund. Insane.

All this is happening as we are heading toward the year when Valletta will be honoured with the title of Capital City of Culture. With a public broadcaster in shambles and cultural institutions under the management of incompetent people, V18 will come and go and will leave no tangible heritage.

The government should realise that nobody cares about the vanity projects of a couple of airheads. Culture can only be strengthened in the long term if we provide capital expenditure to invest in the cultural infrastructure, including the public broadcaster. Recurrent expenditure will come and go, but speaking about these concepts to many officials in PBS and other cultural entities is like speaking Cantonese to a Maltese who can hardly speak and write in Maltese, let alone Cantonese.

The Minister of Culture should sit back, take a deep breath and begin his reality check. This state of shambles cannot go on forever and if everybody in the culture industry, except for the minister’s cronies, are saying the same thing, then something is surely amiss. After all, the Labour Party has been elected into office to do better than this.

http://www.maltatoday.com.mt/comment/blogs/79523/worst_of_times_for_public_broadcasting#.WYlVV59NwnR

The readership rate conundrum

The recently released Arts Council and the National Statistics Office Cultural Participation Survey shows a 44% figure for persons who have read at least one whole book during the last 12 months. The survey on cultural participation is based on a sample of around 1,000 positive replies approximately divided per capita, according to Malta’s regions. The survey is on whether people have read a book, went to the cinema or a film-screening, listen to the radio, visited an art gallery, watched a play or engaged in these same cultural activities and others, including parish feasts.

This survey is a commendable yet rare exercise. Scientific surveys on culture are always welcome and Etienne Caruana at NSO, who for years has coordinated cultural statistics, should be commended for his work. Admittedly, public functionaries in education and culture have to work with a dearth of statistical data and scientific studies and the work of professionals like Caruana should be intensified and extended both at a central level, meaning at NSO, and in ministries and public entities. Since the Cultural Participation Survey is a rare exercise, it is even more important to commission other surveys on culture to obtain the best scientific result possible. One can easily cast doubts on aspects of the results of a survey if it stands alone, without being corroborated with other surveys on the same subject.

I would not be so fast as to jump to pessimistic conclusions on the basis of the 44% figure. As a matter of fact, I have some doubts about its accuracy, although I might be proved wrong if more surveys are commissioned and they all corroborate the same figure. Still, the Eurobarometer survey of 2013 had marked a 55% readership rate of books, recording an increase of 10% from the 2007 figure. The increasing readership rate was then corroborated with an increasing trend in book consumption and imports. Thus, overall we had very good reasons why to be optimistic of readership rates and book consumption.

The new 44% figure does not decrease my optimism. One has to admit that the same Cultural Participation Survey gives reasons to be optimistic. The survey indicates that it is the young who form the greatest chunk of the reading population. If the young generation is more likely to read books than their progenitors, then an upward trend in readership rates could be in the offing. This argument can be challenged by the fact that once young people have children, they might abandon many of their activities.

We also still have to wait to see the full benefits of the massive literacy and reading campaigns which have been initiated at a primary school level by the previous Labour administration. The National Book Council has played a small and yet crucial role in this strategy by giving out free book tokens to school children who attend the Book Festival in November and ensuring that the Festival inspires a positive outlook to reading and books in children and young teenagers.

School and class libraries are also being filled to the brim with books. The raison d’etre behind this drive is simple: catch them when they are young. Promoting the importance of reading and books to the general public is still a government priority and this is how the National Book Council comes into the formula. This is why under my chairmanship, the Book Council has spent considerable sums of its budgets in both print and online media, TV programmes, and even adverts and marketing drives on social media.

The survey also gives us the possibility to ask more questions and this is another reason why more detailed surveys are needed. Assuming both the Eurobarometer and the Cultural Participation are accurate, is there a chunk of readers who may read books intermittently according to what books are published? Fifty Shades of Grey might be a case a point.

If one were to assume this survey is accurate, then surely this should serve as a wake-up call for the government to increase exponentially the budget for the National Book Council. Under the previous Nationalist administrations, the book industry was all but ignored on a policy level, with the result that most of the cultural funding went to theatre, music and other cultural sectors, leaving the book sector completely out. Catching up with lost time and opportunity is difficult when the priorities had been set before one comes to office. Moving funds from one sector to another is also a bone of contention and a political issue, so any funding we receive is over and above the funding which has already been previously prioritised by government policy.

Books are not just a cultural segment offering enjoyment and an experience. Books are a pre-requisite for the educational and intellectual development of a society. A low readership rate should be a wake-up call for a government to pool its resources and step up its efforts in education, literacy and book promotion.

http://www.maltatoday.com.mt/comment/blogs/78501/maltas_low_readership_is_a_wakeup_call_for_the_government#.WVO4xh9NwnR

National Book Council’s Summer Book Festival

The National Book Council announces it has prepared a treat for all book lovers this Summer: the Summer Book Festival – Gozo, a two-day event packed with cultural activities as well as a book fair. It will take place in Gozo on 14 and 15 July at Sir M. A. Refalo Sixth Form in Victoria. The activities in the cultural programme of the festival will be based on the themes of youth literature and poetry.

Friday 14 July is dedicated to literature for youth. Activities for this day include a panel discussion on the topic of Youth and Literature, which will touch upon various themes, among which youth literacy, and the problems of addressing youth issues without being patronising. There will also be events that focus on particular authors who have distinguished themselves in literature aimed at or concerned with youth and youth issues. Among the guests, both for the panel discussion and the author events, there will be Leanne Ellul, Antoinette Borg, Matthew Schembri, Roberta Bajada and other winners of the Literary Contest – Novels for Youth, which is co-organized by the National Book Council and Aġenzija Żgħażagħ. Summer school students from Malta and Gozo will be invited to attend the Festival with their teachers and parents, as part of their summer school programme.

Poetry will be the focus of the activities on Saturday 15 July. The main event, in honour of the late Gozitan poet Gorg Pisani, will be set up by the National Book Council and will feature readings of excerpts of the poet’s work. A number of well-known local poets will also make an appearance during the various activities in the cultural programme for Saturday. Among these Prof. Michael Zammit and Maria Grech Ganado.

The publishers/associations participating for the event are: Merlin, Glen Calleja and EDE books, Faraxa, MCA (Malta Classics Association), Horizons, SKS, Midsea.

The National Book Council invites all members of the public to remember the dates and find the time to visit the festival during the day or later in the evening. Do not miss out on this opportunity to browse through great literature while getting to meet some of the most exciting authors and poets active today on our islands.

http://ktieb.org.mt/summer-book-festival-gozo/

Walid Nabhan, the immigrant song

In this year’s round of the European Union Prize for Literature, the Maltese recipient was Walid Nabhan with his novel L-Eżodu taċ-Ċikonji, published by Klabb Kotba Maltin, which had won the National Book Prize in 2014. The awarding of the prize to Nabhan is of great significance, not only for the merits of the novel, which is undoubtedly one of the greatest novels of the Maltese literary canon, it is also relevant in the historical sense since this is a prize awarded to an immigrant who writes not in his native language but in the language of his new home country. The fact that the language is Maltese, a minor one in the global hierarchy of languages, and a language known only to the inhabitants of the island of Malta, makes this prize even more particular.

The story and themes of Nabhan’s novel make his rise to the Maltese literary college even more telling as if Nabhan is writing his own story in history through literature itself, distorting the boundary between his literary creativity and the material reality he lives in. L-Eżodu taċ-Ċikonji is an existential tract on a protagonist who tries to understand his identity in a reality of displacement.

This is the reality of the immigrant whose identity is changed by a voyage, and the emergence and assimilation of a new native reality. Displacement is the result of a movement from one place to another and through this process a new identity is created. This movement is caused by the fact that, for some reason or another can not build one’s home and life in one’s native country usually for political reasons or reasons of war. The new identity, the life and culture of the new home-country, which the immigrant is suddenly entangled in, comes into conflict with the old one, yet there is also the new over-all and arching identity of the immigrant himself, an identity comprised of a mixture of the old, the new and their bond through the unintended voyage.

In simpler terms, one can say that Nabhan’s novel is a novel on the spirit of the Arab immigrant who moves to Europe, from the perspective of the immigrant himself, and this is what makes it historically significant. Nabhan’s protagonist is the voice of the immigrant in a new reality and his voice is also the voice of millions of immigrants coming to Europe in our times.

This is a literary genre which is growing, and a genre heralded into Europe by immigrants themselves. In bookshops which sell books in different languages such as Librebook in Brussels you may find a shelf category dedicated to literature by immigrants in Europe, writing in their adopted tongue.

What gives an edge to Nabhan’s novel, is its very critical outlook. There is no romance, nostalgia, patriotism or love for any particular culture in the protagonist’s view. Rather, the protagonist laments on the tragic state of his people, the Arab world, but mostly on the Palestinians. The beauty of L-Eżodu taċ-Ċikonji lies in the thoughtful consideration of the protagonist’s consciousness and the impeccable detail of the representation. Ideology and politics infuse the book, but all of it is sublimated in the personal experience of the protagonist and his sardonic commentary.

In his old identity and previous homeland, the protagonist recalls how old people are always obeyed and their thoughts are never objected to, women are contradictorily inferior and superior to men, but men always end up having the better share of the deal, and male homosexuality is looked down upon because the arsehole is property of the community and not of the individual.

Dictatorship in the Arab world is part and parcel of the social frame of mind and the fruit-seller is as much a dictator as the police and the government. There is no love lost for the protagonist to his old home-country, but there is neither any optimism for the new world he has suddenly found himself in. Albert Camus would have probably responded to Nabhan with great acclamation.

Although this is arguably just the beginning of Nabhan’s writing career, Nabhan has already taken Malta by storm. Furthermore, his great work of literature, so unique as it is, may take over international literary circles too. Already there are plans for his work to be published in London, Beirut, Sofia and Tirana, and this is just the beginning. Nabhan has already gained respect for his impeccable translation of Adrian Grima’s poems into Arabic, published in Egypt, but it will be his works in Maltese which will probably make him one of Malta’s best known authors abroad.

http://www.maltatoday.com.mt/arts/books/77910/walid_nabhan_the_immigrant_song#.WTkgRR9NwnQ

Truly great expectations

Summer is coming, schools will be closing and National Book Prize judges will be busy reading through their book lists. The adjudication process has already started, yet it will take as long as October for the jury to reach their final verdict, right before Malta Book Festival which traditionally opens with the announcement of the Terramaxka Prize for children’s books. The winners of the Prize for adult literature and research categories are announced later in December in a separate ceremony.

Children’s books are becoming increasingly more attractive. Merlin publishers dominated last year’s Terramaxka prize and this comes as no surprise to anyone who has leafed through its books. Merlin’s in-house designer Pierre Portelli needs no introductions, and is well-known in the literary and artistic scene. Merlin prides itself in its varied choice of prestigious artists for its productions. Mingu, penned by renowned author Clare Azzopardi, is illustrated by Lisa Falzon, a Maltese artist who has made a name with her mystical and dream-like paintings. Mingu tells the story of a flamingo that was shot down by a hunter and the book is indicative of a new trend in children’s books, in which authors seek to bring out contemporary and controversial themes in their work. It is hoped that this trend will, in due course, completely supersede the more traditional children’s book type, which depends so heavily on slapstick humour.

Other winners in the children’s categories included Pierre J. Mejlak, a recipient of the European Union Prize for literature, Loranne Vella and John Bonello with his book Irvin Vella: investigatur virtwali a fantasy crime novel for children to ages from 8 to 12. The winner for the ages from 12 to 16 was Djamantini, a collection of poems, stories and illustrations by children from Pembroke’s secondary school; an interesting project made possible thanks to school teacher Sharon Micallef Cann.

The prize for adult novels was once more awarded to a publication by Klabb Kotba Maltin, Alex Vella Gera’s Trojan. Klabb Kotba Maltin has recently emerged as the dominant winner in this category with authors such as Immanuel Mifsud and Walid Nabhan, both recipients of the European Union Prize for Literature. A second-time winner of the Prize, Vella Gera needs no introduction, and his work speaks for itself. With Trojan Alex Vella Gera takes a more sublime route to existential crisis, in contrast to his highly controversial Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi. I will not spoil the book for those who have not read it yet, but in Trojan, a story about a conservative author who made a name from the only book he published, you only get the significant and relevant background at the very end of the story, in a way which illustrates perfectly the art of keeping a secret with all its dark, deep and hidden implications.

A new publisher to enter the college of Book Prize winners is Kite with its astonishing pictorial album of Antonio Sciortino’s models, written and compiled by Gerald Bugeja. Antonio Sciortino: The Lost Album is a collection of a significant number of photographs of models of works by Antonio Sciortino complemented with Bugeja’s insightful commentary on Sciortino’s life and work. The prize in the historiography section went to Keith Sciberras with his important study of the Baroque art of Malta Caravaggio to Mattia Preti, which he shared with Paul George Pisani’s The Battle of Lepanto, 7 October 1571, an unpublished Hospitaller account, a study of the account of the Battle of  Lepanto by Abbot Luc Cenni. The translation category prize was awarded to Edmund Teuma with his translation of the Arabic Nights, published by BDL.

The poetry prize was won by Nadia Mifsud, a Maltese translator working and living in France, with her collection of poems Kantuniera ‘l bogħod. This was probably the most difficult category to adjudicate given that the other entrants included some well-established names such as Adrian Grima and Norbert Bugeja, not to mention Joe P. Galea, whose Bla Qiegħ: Poeżija mit-Trab, published by Horizons, impressed the reading public to the point that the book seemed certain to win the prize. It is being said that Galea will be publishing a novel soon and this is surely a book to watch out for.

A veteran author and a household name, Trevor Żahra carried off the prize in the short-story category with a collection of dark and mysterious stories, Vespri. Published in 2015, the book had been received with accolades of acclaim by both critics and members of the reading public. There can be no doubt that this is one of his best works to date.

Last year a new prize was introduced to award emerging authors, that is, authors who have one or very few publications to their name but who have nonetheless managed to win the attention of critics. The first winner of the Emerging Author Prize is Leanne Ellul, who had already made a name when her debut novel “Gramma” won the National Book Council’s and Aġenzija Żgħażagħ’s Literature for Youth Contest. Gramma is a young-adult novel about anorexia and body-issues with a female voice.

This year round, we once again expect some great titles to awe us and grab our full attention. With regards to the administration and the adjudication of the Prize, the National Book Council continually strives to raise the standards and the level of the adjudication process. The prize will always be highly controversial, since giving a prize to a book and not to another may always be reduced into subjective criteria even though we have a system which is aimed to create the best possible objective outcome. Authors are always invited to speak about the National Book Prize at our consultation meetings and the National Book Council has always given due consideration to their feedback, along with that of the publishers. As the Prize becomes ever more popular, prestigious and sought-after, the National Book Council will find itself more and more intensely scrutinized by the critical eye of our many authors and the reading public. Meanwhile the National Book Council’s adjudication board is busy evaluating last year’s published books.

Happy reading everyone.

http://www.maltatoday.com.mt/arts/books/77723/truly_great_expectations#.WTE0QR9NwnR

The right to insult

Published in Sunday Times of Malta 16/04/2017

Originally, Labour intended to reform press and libel laws to help lift the burden of hefty legal fees, libel damages and fines from a financially beleaguered press. This noble cause was openly embraced by the government until somewhere down the line the principles guiding the drive to libel reform became somewhat skewed.

Government MPs and members of the Cabinet recently made speeches in Parliament which laid bare their true feelings on libel laws – they complained about being unjustly attacked and defamed by their critics. These men in power thought they would have the public’s sympathy simply because their feelings were hurt, but they are deluding themselves if they think the public would ever endorse a libel reform based largely on the misgivings and discomfort of men in power.

The proposed government bill will introduce improvements in some ways. Most of the wording of the civil libel reform is copied from British law, which earned the approval of the English writers’ organisation, PEN. The British defamation act provides a defence against defamation accusations with the concept of honest opinion in matters of public interest.

However, the government’s proposed bill contradicts the aim which it had previously extolled by strengthening criminal libel law and by increasing civil libel damages by almost 100 per cent of their previous value. Where the wording of the original British bill was modified, changes have been made which might seem innocuous but have a larger than perceived impact in practice, such as the replacement of “defamatory statements” with “defamatory words”.

Historically, libel laws have always served to protect institutions and those who are in power and the latest libel case concluded in favour of Transport Minister Joe Mizzi is testament to this. A man took to Facebook to insult the Minister of Transport, describing him as “corrupt” and a “cuckold” in what seems to have been a fit of anger triggered by the fact that the resurfacing of the road next to his house took 10 months to be completed. The court considered the words used by the defendant as simultaneously insulting and defamatory and hit him with €7,000 in damages.

The minister refused to accept the money, but this patronising act, so emblematic of a self-righteous, forgiving Christian, does not change the fact that Mizzi and his colleagues in government subscribe to the view that they should not be insulted and that the law should serve this purpose.

The improvements in the defamation and civil libel law will not materialise if the government retains criminal libel as per article 252 of the Criminal Code. The proposed bill will also add the term “insults” in the already existing article, making criminal libel even more effective. It’s useless if, on one hand, the government tries to make a progressive step forward, while at the same time it retains the status quo which it is supposedly trying to defeat. This is making a mockery of the bill.

The bill can be improved with a thorough examination and an intelligent review. It doesn’t need to be discarded altogether, but one has to be cautious with the wording of laws which, in effect, depend on the proper interpretation of language and words in context. In the Joe Mizzi case the court interpreted the words of the defendant as literal statements of fact. Both in formal and informal settings, insults may not always carry a literal meaning, but are rather meant to invoke a rhetorical effect.

Politicians know this well, they’re not idiots – although we should retain the right to call them so. To protect themselves politicians might instead bring up the excuse of the nanny state.

It may be argued that it is in the interest of law and order that innocent individuals be protected against unjust defamation, but the idea that the State should defend one’s feelings and emotions is bizarre, and only meant to defend the status and position of institutions and men in power.

Our men in power must come to terms with the fact that offending and insulting them comes part and parcel with the package of liberal politics and free speech. I know they are aware of this, but they should also do their duty, put aside their personal interests and do what is right for democracy.

If the government truly wants to keep being progressive in legislative reforms, this time round, it must be bold enough to go against its own innate defence mechanism.

http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20170416/opinion/The-right-to-insult.645297