The Last Supper, but not the last controversy

What this case has revealed is a deep and widespread misunderstanding of ‘freedom of expression’ at all levels

5 July 2017, 9:39am
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
The furore that erupted this weekend over an offensive billboard has once again raised questions regarding the issue of freedom of expression.

The 12-metre “Last Supper” billboard, erected by fast food joint New York Best, had depicted Jesus and his apostles munching on NYB pizzas, burgers and chips. It went viral on social media, after photos were uploaded online.

This prompted Moviment Patrijotti Maltin leader Henry Battistino, and MPM candidate Desmond Falzon, to take matters into their own hands: ripping Jesus’ face out of the billboard, and publicly exhibiting evidence of their actions.

Although, on the surface, it appears to be a minor incident, it has nonetheless exposed deep social divisions surrounding religious sentiment in Malta. Blasphemy and the vilification of religion were officially decriminalised in 2016. One can naturally agree or disagree with the depiction of Jesus Christ on a promotional advert for fast food: but clearly, there is no legal impediment to such expression, however tasteless it may have appeared to some.

This fact, however, must be put into the context of Malta’s social realities. Regardless of the law, there can be no denying that people feel genuinely offended by what they feel are disrespectful portrayals of their religion. The law in itself is not a reflection of popular sentiment. It merely sets limits on people’s actions; social conventions still come into play. 

In practice, this means that the chain is fully within its rights to project whatever image it chooses of itself. But there will be social repercussions. One is reminded, for instance, of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris in 2015. Then as now, the law was firmly on the side of the satirical newspaper that published cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad. But the law, on its own, cannot realistically protect a newspaper from the consequences of its actions. One tests the limits of public tolerance only at one’s own risk.

But it is also up to people to run that risk, if they so choose. Charlie Hebdo journalists knew they were risking their lives; by the same token, New York Best would have surely been aware of the offence it would cause with that advertising campaign. There is now talk of a boycott, for instance. The chain probably calculated that its regular clientele would not be overly affected by the loss of this type of client, and concluded that it was a risk worth taking. 

The important thing, however, is that it was, and remains, a free choice. One is therefore equally free to react to that choice appropriately, within legal limits and parameters. A boycott, for instance, would be a perfectly legitimate response, without resorting to illegalities.

It is for this reason that – though the two scenarios are hardly comparable on the surface – a modern, democratic and secular state should always defend the right of people to express whatever views they want to. Ultimately, underlying the impulse to vandalise that billboard there was the same disregard for the law that we also saw – albeit on a much more serious scale – in the Charlie Hebdo case. 

The argument appears to be that ‘personal outrage’ (in both cases, on the basis of religion) somehow trumps the law.

This has been acknowledged by the perpetrator himself.  “I saw the Lord Jesus, who died and suffered to save us, being mocked and ridiculed, so that [New York Best] could sell a few more pizzas and chips,” Battistino  wrote on Facebook. “My faith is stronger than all man-made laws, and I can NEVER agree with the government’s decision to decriminalise the vilification of religion.”

There is an irony here: on the one hand, Battistino calls for laws to protect his religion from abuse; on the other, he declares that he has no qualms about breaking the law, when the law does not conform to his opinions. By that reasoning, even with the re-introduction of blasphemy laws, people should still feel justified in breaking them. Battistino’s argument (and, even more so, his example) enables anyone to simply break any law at will.

There is also a legal conundrum. Now that NYB has ruled out taking legal action over the vandalism, the matter is more or less closed from their perspective. All that remains is to deal with whatever effects (if any) may arise from their actions. It is, in a word, their business.

The same cannot however be said for Malta’s law enforcement institutions. Battistino’s actions were not merely illegal: they also constituted a direct challenge to the authorities, warning them that – where ‘blasphemy’ and ‘vilification’ are concerned – he and other like-minded individuals do not feel constrained by legal parameters at all.

Without exaggerating the implications – we are, ultimately talking about a minor offence here – that is not an attitude that the authorities should be seen to condone. 

Above all, however, what this case has also revealed is a deep and widespread misunderstanding of ‘freedom of expression’ at all levels. There is an abundance of European human rights case law that clearly indicates one does not have the right not to feel ‘shocked’ or ‘offended’. 

No country or religion is an exception to that rule.