Censorship reform: a concession too far?

Perhaps the vilification law is not the only fossil whose time is long past - Ingram Bondin

While some attempts at taking a more moderate stance on certain issues have been made by the Nationalist Party, it seems that the old confessional and ultra-conservative attitude still prevails
While some attempts at taking a more moderate stance on certain issues have been made by the Nationalist Party, it seems that the old confessional and ultra-conservative attitude still prevails

Bill 113, reforming a number of censorship laws, finally reached committee stage in Parliament on 28 June. Discussion of the Bill has been postponed many times since it was tabled more than a year ago, and resistance to it from certain opposition and government quarters had led some to suspect that it would be left languishing there until it died a natural death through the end of the legislature.

In short this Bill was supposed to remove the crime of vilification of religion, relax the pornography law through its replacement with an extreme pornography law, lower the penalties for disrupting a religious ceremony from up to one year in prison to up to three months in prison, and make revenge pornography a crime.

As could be expected, the major point of disagreement was on the removal of the vilification law. Whilst favouring the removal of the vilification law, and having the last word over the Bill, Minister Owen Bonnici seemed especially concerned not to allow Nationalist MPs Jason Azzopardi and Carm Mifsud Bonnici to make any political mileage from the removal of this law.

In fact he started the meeting by proposing an amendment which would make incitement to violence, and the spreading of hatred on religious grounds a crime on par with doing so on racial grounds. This was meant to give a clear signal that the government would not allow free speech to go so far in that direction. He then indicated that similarly, the opposition could not expect criticism of religion to be protected at law and that the time of the vilification law is now long past.

Not content with the concession, Jason Azzopardi remarked that criticism was different from the ridicule of religion, since this was what was really at stake with the vilification law. Bonnici claimed that while he is not in favour of ridiculing religion, the law in its present state has indeed impacted artists and that he was in favour of a society which moved away from criminal prosecutions in these cases. This came in the wake of a very pertinent comment by the Attorney General, in which he claimed that it might be difficult to separate criticism from ridicule in cases such as satire.

In a further attempt to compromise with the opposition and obtain consensus over the Bill, Bonnici made a further concession in the form of lowering the penalty for disrupting a religious ceremony to six months instead of to three months as had been proposed. This came to much gloating from the Nationalist side, in that this made the offence a delict instead of a mere contravention. Following this, the opposition proceeded to press for an adjournment in order to ‘consult their parliamentary group’. One could hardly expect any change of heart to come from this exercise, which was simply meant to further delay the passage of the Bill. 

While one appreciates Bonnici’s parliamentary skill in dealing with an opposition whose only purpose was to dilute the Bill as much as possible where it related to their beloved ‘religious sentiment’, one is disappointed at the fact that this came at a cost of several concessions which the Nationalists did not deserve. 

One should not forget that both Carm Mifsud Bonnici and Jason Azzopardi were part of the Gonzi government during a period of escalation in censorship and Police persecution of the arts. Indeed, when Mifsud Bonnici was Minister for Justice and the Interior, the Criminal Code was amended in order to make the pornography law used to prosecute editor Mark Camilleri and author Alex Vella Gera even harsher. That this came back to haunt them with a vengeance in the form of a repeal of all the laws used during that time is a bitter pill which should not have been sweetened in any way.

While some attempts at taking a more moderate stance on these issues have been made by the Nationalist Party, it seems that the old confessional and ultra-conservative attitude still prevails. This was clear from a shocking episode which occured when the committee meeting came to discuss the introduction of the revenge porn law. In a completely bizarre way, it seemed that Carm Mifsud Bonnici could not contain himself from making the following irrational, backhanded and homophobic comment about the law, which speaks volumes:

“We agree a lot with it, we want to safeguard those people who are truly vulnerable, especially those belonging to that community which we generally call gay. These are the most vulnerable as when they fight between themselves, they want to cause one another a greater amount of damage, of a certain degree of superiority to that which occurs between a young woman and a young man. While in the latter case foolish things are also done, there is a certain animus which one has to keep under watch”. (See the video for the Commitee for the Consideration of Bills dated 28 June 2016 between 21:38-22:19.)

Perhaps the vilification law is not the only fossil whose time is long past.

Ingram Bondin is an activist for Front Against Censorship

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