Satire must be brutal… but also honest | Gorg Mallia

Should freedoms be curtailed to prevent them from being abused? For cartoonist and senior lecturer Prof GORG MALLIA, the answer is an emphatic ‘No’

Senior lecturer Gorg Mallia
Senior lecturer Gorg Mallia

Malta has experienced a radical transformation when it comes to freedom of expression. Until a few years ago, anonymity was the order of the day… yet in recent years, we have seen an explosion of public commentary (mostly due to social media). Do you think that the recent censorship controversies arose because the pace of change has been so fast?

I agree there have been changes; but the concept of freedom of expression still remains largely misunderstood in Malta. It’s something we’re new to; we have not yet fully understood what it means to have censorship abolished totally. There is a learning process involved, and we’re still at the beginning.

The culture of anonymity, for instance, still exists. Recently, a journalist called me for a comment about an issue related to my area. I duly commented; but when the article came out, I found there were four other academics who had been sounded out on the same issue. I was the only one identified by name. The rest all said they would only talk on condition of anonymity, for fear of repercussion.

People are scaredy-cats, basically. Why hide behind anonymity? If you believe something, why not say it? This is why I was, after Gerada, the first local newspaper cartoonist to sign my cartoons with my real name. To be fair, however, not everyone had that luxury. Maurice Tanti Burlò, for instance, couldn’t sign with his real time because of Estacode: he worked within the public service at the time… hence the pseudonym ‘Nalizperla’, among others.

Even today, however, despite the revolutions in media technology, anonymity is still there. Remember that a lot of what we call ‘trolls’ on social media are actually fake user profiles. If anything, social media has made it much easier to remain anonymous. It creates the possibility of presenting oneself as a real person, by creating an alias, and using a fake profile pic… and there you have it. People suddenly think you’re real…

In a sense, this could be seen as an argument in favour of censorship. Technology has made it so easy to communicate and disseminate ‘information’ – and so much of it is fake – that perhaps we do need more control over public expression. Yet you also argued against censorship in the recent Carnival controversy. How do reconcile this apparent contradiction?

This is always the dilemma. In Maltese, we distinguish between two words when discussing ‘freedom’: ‘libertà’, and ‘libertinaġġ’. I don’t think there’s a direct translation for the latter in English: but in Maltese, it means ‘the abuse of freedom’. And this is the crux of the matter. When you have freedoms, they are obviously going to be abused… either by people who simply don’t know any better; or by people whose intention is to abuse.

So the question becomes: do you curtail freedoms, to prevent those freedoms from being abused? My answer is ‘no’; because by curtailing freedom, you will also be curtailing the rights of those who deserve those freedoms, and would use them well. This is why, at its core, freedom of expression is an absolute right.

Naturally, however, this is not a perspective shared by everyone. You might remember the Mohammed cartoons published by [Danish newspaper] Jyllands-Posten... I was living in Sweden at the time, and I followed the affair very closely. A lot of countries where freedom of expression is not absolute were demanding that Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen intervene to stop newspapers from publishing that sort of cartoon.

But Rasmussen said, ‘No, I can’t do that, because we have freedom of expression here’. If people felt affronted or aggrieved, there are laws in place to take the matter to court. In fact, the whole point of Jyllands-Posten was precisely to test the limits of freedom of expression, to see how far they could go.

The point is that, while freedom of expression is absolute in most countries in Europe, there’s also something called ‘ethical lines’. Some things are not objectionable because they are illegal, but because they are perceived as being extremely ‘immoral’.

I use the word intentionally: because morality should never determine the limit of free speech. Nonetheless, ethical lines do exist: and the culture of a country will often determine where they are drawn; and where things suddenly become – to quote a phrase that has been used often in the past weeks – ‘in bad taste’.

Taste, however, is subjective. In France, for instance, there is no such thing as ‘bad taste’. Yes, there will be individuals who are offended…

… as was the case with the Charlie Hebdo incident in 2015…

Charlie Hebdo is another good example. They are deliberately outrageous about everything. Sometimes even I get itchy in a place I can’t scratch when I read Charlie Hebdo. I – who do not consider myself a prude – feel almost prudish in the face of it. But I come from a different culture. Even though I’ve lived in Sweden, which is quite a libertarian environment; and even if I am not religious, myself… seeing religion attacked in that way – satirised so brutally – makes me question whether this sort of thing should even be allowed.

But still, my answer is: yes, it should… for all the reasons I outlined earlier. Nonetheless, the ‘acceptability’ of what is being said very often depends on a country’s cultural lines.

This is certainly true of the recent Carnival float depicting archbishop Scicluna in conjunction with a local child abuse scandal. The float’s designer has defended his design, arguing that the satire which would be considered perfectly normal in other European countries. And yet, we were supposed to have removed censorship laws in the meantime. Doesn’t this mean that the censorship reform was just an illusion?

There was definitely censorship in the case of the Carnival float. I am aware that Minister Herrera denies it was a case of censorship; but by any other name, they censored the chance this man had of saying what he wanted to say.

Now: I do not agree with censorship, in this or any other case. Wearing my academic’s hat: I have to admit that I was hoping he would not be censored, also so that the Church – and anyone else who felt offended by that float – would have had the opportunity to take the case to court. In this way, we would have tested the system, to see exactly how far it can go to defend people who feel offended by satire.

In this case, however, the complaint was not so much that the float was ‘offensive’… but that it was ‘libellous’. The European Court of Human Rights has already ruled that freedom of expression includes the right to offend… but can it also be used to justify lying about others?

I’m a satirist myself, so let me come to this from my own perspective. For starters, satire not only has the right to offend… but an obligation. There is no such thing as ‘mild satire’. Satire has to be brutal. If it isn’t brutal, it’s no good: because the whole point of satire is to ridicule… to make fun of something. If nobody is offended, then you can’t even talk about it as ‘satire’ at all.

Nonetheless, satire still has to ultimately be based on reality. If am to satirise someone, it has to be on the basis of something that person said, did, or is. I can’t base my satire on something I simply invented about that person myself. That wouldn’t be satire; that would be slander, to the highest degree.

But the point is… can you stop anyone from lying about you? No, because people have the freedom to speak in public; and to stop them from lying, you would also have to stop them from speaking. This doesn’t mean there is no protection from slander, however. I am free to lie about others; but others would then have the option to take me to court.

This is why the academic side of me was furious that this wasn’t allowed to happen in the Carnival float case. The float designer was not allowed to get his message across… and the archbishop was also denied the opportunity to seek redress from the law-courts. Which brings us back to square one…

Was it really libellous, though? The designer denied that his intention was to hold the archbishop personally responsible for the Dar San Guzepp case…

The problem with visual satire – and a Carnival float is very much like a cartoon, in this sense – is that it is not articulate. There is no room for detail. If you write a 1,000-word article, you have every chance in the world to explain what you mean from 20 different angles. With visual satire, you can’t. Visual satire has to be direct. The more elements you add, the greater the likelihood that the original point of the satire would be lost.

In this case, what the designer was trying to do was to make seven or more different points, in one visual comment. Of course, the chances are that his actual intentions were going to be misunderstood. He tried to talk about too much: sperm-banks, paedophilia, IVF, gay rights… and besides, by juxtaposing the image of the archbishop onto a backdrop suggesting paedophilia, he was visually depicting the archbishop as a paedophile. Regardless of his actual intentions, that is how it was going to be interpreted.

In fact, his own intentions are not even relevant; what counts is not what you mean to say, but how you convey the meaning…

Doesn’t this add up to a justification of censorship, however?

No. However flawed the message, he should still have been allowed to put it across; and if people were offended, they could have sued for libel. But this brings me to another issue: the legal system is crap, quite frankly. I personally would never sue anyone for libel, unless my reputation was so utterly torn to shreds that I felt I had no other option. But it would have to be a last resort; because the system, as it stands, is a time-waster… a money-pit… and the worst part of it is that cases get deferred, time and again, often without the actors even being informed.

So in the end: yes, we have freedom of expression; yes, we can say whatever we want; and yes, we have the legal option to take people to court for what they say, if we feel libelled. But in practice, it doesn’t really work… because the prospect of suing for libel is too daunting… too off-putting, for most people.

Ultimately, the laws of the land should give people the right of redress… but to do that, the laws of the land also have to function properly and efficiently. And as things stand today, the legal system is simply too inefficient to provide an adequate remedy.