A pastor carpet bombing comedians into silence (a figure of speech)

The pastor believes that he should be treated with kids gloves and comedians, or journalists, should steer away from making any critical reference to him, his words, or his church. Maybe the Holy Spirit can enlighten Manchè that a democratic society does not work this way

Pastor Gordon-John Manchè was at it again last week when he filed a police report for action to be taken against comedian Daniel Xuereb.

The crime? In one of his skits, Xuereb sarcastically informed his audience that Manchè should be taken seriously when referring to anal sex as being the work of the devil because being an “asshole”, he knew a thing or two about the matter.

But Xuereb’s ‘crime’ did not end there. He went on to show solidarity with fellow comedian Matthew Bonanno, who is also facing criminal charges instituted by Manchè after he said the River of Love church captained by the pastor should relocate to Buġibba and be “carpet bombed”.

The pastor took offence with Xuereb’s jokes and claimed the reference to carpet bombing was a threat.

In comments to MaltaToday, Manchè went on to say that comedians insulting him “must stop”.

In one fell swoop, Manchè attempted to carpet bomb comedians into silence; and lest the pastor understands that this leader is claiming that he actually piloted an airplane and dropped bombs on Malta’s comedians, he should know this is a figure of speech.

No right-thinking individual who saw Xuereb’s comedy skit would have understood that the comedian was inciting anyone to actually hijack a military aircraft and go on a carpet bombing spree of Manchè and his followers. It is not only ridiculous to think in this way but downright dumb.

The Criminal Code does make provisions against insults and threats but due consideration must be given to what was said and the context within which it was said. But more importantly, when talking of insults, the primary consideration should be how this conflicts with the constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression.

In Handyside vs UK, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) held that the right to freedom of expression, as provided for in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects not only expressions that are favourably received but also those that “offend, shock or disturb”. This landmark judgment made it clear that a democratic society would be limp if it only allows space for views and information that are agreeable.

What democratic society would it be if feathers cannot be ruffled, and views challenged?

This interpretation of freedom of expression, which has also been adopted by the Maltese courts over the years, is what protects Manchè’s right to say things that may offend or disturb the few or the many.

But just as he expects his right to impart opinions be protected at law, Manchè must also realise that Xuereb and Bonanno also have a right to say things that may offend him.

And it goes further than that; people have a right to receive what Xuereb and Bonanno have to say just as much as Manchè’s followers have a right to receive the teachings imparted by the pastor.

In Lingens vs Austria, the ECHR held that “the limits of acceptable criticism are accordingly wider as regards a politician as such than as regards a private individual”. It went on to underscore that a politician “inevitably and knowingly lays himself open to close scrutiny of his every word and deed by both journalists and the public at large, and he must consequently display a greater degree of tolerance”.

ECHR case law has also extended this doctrine to public figures when seeking a just balance between the right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression.

It is not just politicians who must display a greater degree of tolerance. Manchè is the leader of River of Love and is sufficiently well-known to qualify as a public figure. He has appeared on TV shows produced by his own church and has also been involved in public controversy. His sermons are filmed and broadcast on YouTube. He is not a nobody and as such must expect a greater degree of scrutiny on his actions just as the leader of the Catholic church, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, and the leader of the Muslim community, the Imam, should expect.

In exercising his right to free speech, Xuereb was commenting, or rather satirising, about an issue that Manchè spoke about and which has been documented on videos disseminated on social media.

Manchè chose to speak of anal sex as an aberration. He has every right to believe so and say so. He is definitely not alone to think along these lines. But just as he has the right to espouse those words, others have the right to ridicule his statement, and by no stretch of the imagination can this be construed to be a threat.

The pastor believes that he should be treated with kids gloves and comedians, or journalists, should steer away from making any critical reference to him, his words, or his church. Maybe the Holy Spirit can enlighten Manchè that a democratic society does not work this way.

If he cannot stand the heat, he should get out of the kitchen rather than waste precious police time chasing after comedians.

And on a separate note. Police Commissioner Angelo Gafà must prepare a standard operating procedure on how police should handle complaints that impinge on free speech. Manifestly frivolous complaints should be dismissed without having to press charges. If the complainant insists, they can always open challenge proceedings in court, which the police can then defend based on their internal procedures.