Tear down obscene and criminal libel

Obscene libel bears a striking resemblance to other censorship laws which have already been repealed. All these laws are odious

Ingram Bondin
11 January 2017, 7:35am
Obscene libel is an instrument of censorship and is used against those writings which ‘injure public morals or decency’
Obscene libel is an instrument of censorship and is used against those writings which ‘injure public morals or decency’
Malta has come a long way since the censorship of the play Stitching and the short story ‘Li Tkisser Sewwi’. In the space of a few years we have seen the end of theatre censorship and the removal of the religious vilification and pornography laws.

Yet, obscene libel, which was also used to suppress ‘Li Tkisser Sewwi’ has so far defied repeal. 

There are three types of libel law in Malta: criminal libel, civil libel and obscene libel.

The first two are used in cases where a person claims to have been defamed. A Police report is all that it takes to set criminal libel in motion, and those found guilty can be fined or imprisoned for up to three months. Despite its routine use, the law is in fact a tyrannical one and is not compatible with a free press. Nevertheless, there are those who wish to preserve it as a means of harassment and intimidation against journalists. 

On the other hand civil libel is initiated through a lawsuit and can result in the award of substantial damages, up to €11,646.87. There are those who want to make this penalty harsher, but hopefully common sense will prevail.

Obscene libel is an instrument of censorship and is used against those writings which ‘injure public morals or decency’, either ‘directly, indirectly or by the use of equivocal expressions’. Once again, those convicted of obscene libel can be fined, or imprisoned for up to three months. Obscene libel bears a striking resemblance to other censorship laws which have already been repealed. All these laws are odious because of their extreme ambiguity and the threat of imprisonment. 

Just a few years ago, obscene libel was the instrument of choice for the repression of the arts by a conservative and confessional regime. The potential for a future wave of artistic repression, resembling the one between 2009-2011 is not to be taken lightly.

One should note that Act No. XXXVII of 2016, which repealed the religious vilification and pornography law, also repealed the Pornography and Obscenity Regulations of 1975. Thus we now have an obscene libel law which is not guided by any definition of obscenity. 

One might ask why this Act did not take the opportunity to repeal obscene libel. The reason for this seems to be that the Act reformed the Criminal Code, whilst obscene libel is part of the Press Act.

Owen Bonnici had announced that a Bill removing criminal libel would be tabled on 10th October, 2016. This decision was most welcome, but this mysterious Bill has not been tabled yet. Its contents are anyone’s guess, although one hopes that the opportunity will be taken to remove obscene libel as well.

Perhaps 2017 will be the year obscene libel kicks the dust, bringing the piecemeal reform of censorship laws to its conclusion. If we were also to see the end of criminal libel, the year would be off to a great start for freedom of expression.

Ingram Bondin, Front Against Censorship

Ingram Bondin is an activist of the Front Against Censorship