Permission to speak freely | Sean Buhagiar

National Theatre director SEAN BUHAGIAR – one of three individuals currently being prosecuted for ‘insulting’ Pastor Gordon-John Manché – argues that Manché’s actions constitute more of a ‘threat’ to freedom of expression, than satire

Sean Buhagiar
Sean Buhagiar

In the aftermath of the criminal charges filed against you, Matt Bonanno and Daniel Xuereb, Gordon John Manché wrote an article in this newspaper: arguing, among other things, that: “The police took the reports seriously because they saw [the comments] for what they really are – threats and not just jokes.” First of all: how do you yourself respond to that claim? Are we really talking about ‘just jokes’, here?

I think that the problem is that – while there is space for a person like Manché himself, to express his own opinions freely – that same space doesn’t seem to exist, when it comes to other people expressing their own opinions about him.

To put that another way: Gordon-John Manché has often passed offensive, insulting comments about minority groups such as the LGBTIQ community, for instance. But as far as I know, he was never arrested, or prosecuted, for saying things like ‘gay people are an aberration’, or an ‘abomination’; and so on.

And part of the reason is that – when evaluating that sort of comment – people (including the police) tend to take the overall context into consideration. In Manché’s case, the argument would be that he was speaking within the context of a religious organisation; and that – as a pastor of a church that holds down those beliefs – he is entitled to express even hateful, hurtful, and highly insulting comments, on the basis of ‘freedom of speech’.

But then, the same thing does not happen when evaluating comments about Gordon-John Manché: which were also made within a certain context. In Bonanno’s case, it was actually just a comment he uploaded on social media. But Bonanno himself is a satirist, by profession. People like him make a living – or try to, anyway – through satire. That, too, is part of the context that we’re talking about here; and you can’t just ignore that context, like it doesn’t exist.

The issue becomes even clearer, when looking at Daniel Xuereb’s case: who was actually quoted in the context of a ‘stand-up comedy show’.  Leaving aside that he was also responding to something Manché himself had said, earlier. At the end of the say, Xuereb’s joke – and I won’t go into whether it was a ‘good joke’, or not; because that’s something else entirely – was that: ‘Hey, we should listen to what Gordon-John Manché says about anal sex; because, as Malta’s biggest asshole, he knows what he is talking about...’

Now: to be fair, Manché has every right to feel insulted, and offended, by that remark. But to accuse Xuereb of ‘threatening him’, over something that was very clearly a joke, uttered during a comedy show – or, in Bonanno’s case, to interpret his ‘carpet-bombing’ comment, literally (even though it was very clearly satirical) - not only does that totally overlook the context in which those comments were made; but it also constitutes a threat to freedom of expression, in its own right. Even because, within our legal system, the police have no option, really, but to act on those reports.

So to me, that’s a form of bullying. Manché is exploiting a legal... shall we say, ‘loophole’; or a ‘legal unclarity’, if you prefer – to simply bully other people into silence...

On the subject of ‘legal unclarity’: there is an apparent conradiction, between the law that is currently being invoked against you – which defines ‘uttering insults’ as a ‘contravention’ – and the Universal Charter of Human Rights: which implies that ‘freedom of expression’ also includes the right to ‘shock, offend, and disturb’, etc. Is that what you’re referring to, specifically?

Yes, up to a point. Even because - from a constitutional point of view - the European Court of Human Rights is supposed to automatically take precedence, in cases such as these. And this, I think, is the biggest issue, here: there is legal unclarity, with regard to what we are ‘allowed’ – or ‘not allowed’ – to say.

Having said this: while I am obviously in favour of the ‘satire and artistic expression’ argument, in this discussion... I'm not speaking from a legal point of view. I've spoken to quite a number of lawyers on the subject, recently; but I'm not a lawyer, myself.

Nonetheless, I do think there need to be greater safeguards: in particular, for artists, satirists and so on. But I also think that there is legal unclarity, across the board.

For instance: I myself am in favour of ‘the right to insult’; ‘the right to offend’; ‘the right to say anything you want’, basically. But obviously, people need to be aware that there may be repercussions; and to be open to the consequences of what they say.

Once again, however: it should work both ways. If people decide to take others to court, because they feel ‘threatened’ or ‘insulted’ over what was ultimately an artistic/satirical expression – and Manché has done this three times, now - those people should also be, in some way,  liable to the consequences of ‘trying to stifle freedom of speech’.

That way, it wouldn’t be so easy for people like Manché, to keep filing one police report after another... like he was ‘buying a lolly-pop’, if you know what I mean.

I think I do know what you mean: but let’s face it, not everyone out there will agree with you, that everyone should be ‘free to say whatever they want’. At the risk of a devil’s advocate question: don’t those people have a point? You yourself admit that there are ‘consequences’, for speaking freely. By that reasoning: shouldn’t there also be limits, to ‘freedom of speech’?

Let me clarify what I meant by that, first. Like I said earlier, I am absolutely in favour of full freedom of expression. I've always used the quote most commonly attributed to Voltaire, which goes: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’

But it doesn’t mean there are no limitations, whatosever. For one thing, the law already establishes that it is a crime to ‘incite hatred or violence’. And as long as the threat of violence is real – as opposed to someone deliberately misinterpreting a satirical comment, for his own reasons – I have no problem with that, myself.

Elsewhere, the only other area where I would be perfectly ‘OK’ [with a law that sets limits on freedom of speech] is where the protection of children is concerned. I agree, for instance, with things like ‘parental ratings’; and by the same token, I disagree with ‘free access to porn’... or anything else, that children need to be protected from.

That, however, is as far as it goes. When children grow up into adults: then, as far as I’m concerend, they can watch whatever they like. And they certainly should be free, to say whatever they like... especially, in the context of satire.

You’re placing a lot of emphasis on ‘satire’; but that is precisely what Manché is challenging, with those police reports. He is arguing that those comments were NOT satirical... and he’s not alone in thinking that way. Even people generally sympathetic to your cause – like Wayne Flask, for instance – have commented to the effect that: what’s so ‘satirical’ about calling someone an ’asshole’, anyway? Where does one draw the line, between ‘satire’, and plain old ‘insults’?

But it’s NOT just about the word ‘asshole’. This is precisely what I’ve been saying, all along. It’s also about ‘who said it’; ‘where it was said’; and above all, ‘WHY it was said’.

Let’s face it: Daniel Xuereb didn’t just ‘call Manché an asshole’, out of blue... for no reason at all. And if I chose to repeat that comment: it wasn’t because I just decided to spontaneously ‘insult Gordon Manché’... just like that, for its own sake. I did it, because I wanted to make a statement. I saw that Xuereb, and Bonanno before him, were being taken to court, over what is ultimately their fundamental human right; and I felt I had to take a stand, for the same reason outlined in that famous Voltaire quote, basically.

I just thought I’d clarify this, by the way; because there were certain newspaper reports, which made it out as though I simply ‘started insulted Gordon Manché’, just for the heck of it...

Coming back to the word ‘asshole’, however: there was a reason why Daniel Xuereb made a joke out of it... and the joke itself was, in fact, ‘satirical’. Now: once again, I don’t want to be drawn into a discussion about whether it was ‘good satire’, or ‘bad satire’ – that is ultimately up to an audience to decide – but... it was definitely satirical. No doubt about it.

Bear in mind that Xuereb was reacting to Manché’s own comment, that ‘anal sex is an abomination’.

So what Xuereb was really saying, with that remark, was that: ‘Yes, of course anal sex would be such an ‘abomination’, to someone who is ‘Malta’s biggest asshole’. Of course, it would... well, ‘bug him’!”

And that, by definition, constitutes ‘satire’. But – and this is where I disagree with Wayne – the issue here is not really whether Xuereb’s comment was ‘satire’, or not; and even less, whether it was a ‘good’ joke or a ‘bad’ one. The issue is whether people like Daniel Xuereb - or Matt Bonanno, or myself, or anyone else, for that matter - actually have the right to say something like that, in this country... or not.

Now: to the best of my knowledge, in Malta today, you have every right to say whatever you like. You can't be stopped from saying anything; even though you can be taken to court afterwards, by people who feel ‘threatened’ or ‘insulted’. That, as far as I can see, is how the situation stands, today.

So what I’m saying, really, is that: if this loophole exists, that allows people to stifle freedom of expression, even when it clearly takes the form of satire, or artistic expression... then steps have to be taken to address that loophole.

And this is why the satirical context is so important. Let me put it another way: for Gordon Manché to claim he is ‘threatened’, by Daniel Xuereb’s joke about him being an ‘asshole’... or for him to take Matt Bonanno seriously, when he suggested that River of Love should be relocated to Bugibba, and ‘carpet-bombed’...

... that’s the equivalent of taking a Catholic priest to court, because he told that you will ‘go to Hell’ unless you change your sinful ways. Or a doctor, when he diagnoses you with a rare condition, and tells you: ‘You only have three weeks to live’.

Let’s face it: under those circumstances, you wouldn’t exactly file a police report against that doctor, for ‘threatening your life’, would you?  And why not? Because there was a context, within which those words were actually said. And when you look at those words, within that specific context... they are obviously not ‘threatening’, at all.

All I’m saying, then, is that satirists, comedians, and artists in general, should be treated the same way.

What you’re saying also seems to point towards an argument that has often been made about Malta, in the past. At a certain level, it seems we don’t have any real understanding of what ‘satire’ even is, to begin with. And as a result, we tend to take satirical comments, literally. Do you agree with that assessment?

I certainly agree that we don’t have much of a culture of satire, in Malta. We really don't. And there are a lot of factors involved. Part of it, I would say, is probably down to the post-colonial element of being ‘afraid to challenge power’. And while this is only a personal opinion of mine: I don't think we've ever really had any of the symbolic authors, or artist, who really made a difference, in this respect.

People like Dario Fo’ in Italy, for instance: who was excommunicated by the Church, but kept going regardless. Or like Roberto Benigni: an anti-Berlusconi comedian, who was actually on RAI, openly satirising Berlusconi while he was still at the height of his power.

Personally, I feel we don't really have these ‘go-to people’, locally, who ‘push the boundaries’ in the same way. And there’s also a lack of satire, in general. I mean: OK, there have been a few attempts in the past, here and there, on local TV. But I think there is space for a heck of a lot more; and...

... well, that’s exactly my point, right there. This kind of attitude, by people like Gordon John-Manché - who unfortunately is being given a lot of airtime, at the moment; but that, I suppose, is ‘collateral damage’ -  further stifles the possibility, of satire ever becoming a stronger part of our cultural ecosystem.

And this is why I feel that Manché’s actions constitute a far greater threat to freedom of expression, that the ‘threats’ he himself is complaining about. He is abusing an existing loophole in the law, to suppress satire... when in fact, we should be doing everything in our power to create MORE space for satire, and comedy, and artistic expression in general... and not less.