‘Censorship would still be around were it not for divorce’ – Owen Bonnici

Labour spokesperson for culture Owen Bonnici says government has relaxed censorship in an attempt to recover from the divorce referndum, while Culture Minister Mario de Marco says that theatre censorship will be officially a thing of the past “in the coming weeks”.

From left: Owen Bonnici, Mario de Marco and Adrian Buckle.
From left: Owen Bonnici, Mario de Marco and Adrian Buckle.

With film and stage classification as we know it set to disappear from the local scene in the coming weeks, Labour spokesperson for culture Owen Bonnici has said that this development would most likely have not come into effect had the outcome of the divorce referendum been different.

"I am sure that had the divorce referendum not come about, or worse still, had the Nationalist Party won the referendum, today the two sides of the House would be still locking horns on the issue," Bonnici said.

In a move perceived by many to be a response to controversy arising in the wake of several instances of State-condoned censorship, Culture Minister Mario de Marco submitted a draft proposal in January which called for all matters related to film and stage to be moved away from the jurisdiction of the police and into the hands of the Ministry for Culture.

READ MORE: Censored no more – what is the future of Maltese theatre?

It was the landmark 'Stitching' case that brought the issue to public attention, after local theatre company Unifaun Theatre attempted to stage the hard-hitting UK relationship drama - penned by Anthony Nielson, and staged in Edinburgh with a '14' rating - in 2009, only to be banned by the Film and Classification Board at the time.

A parallel case involved author Alex Vella Gera and student editor Mark Camilleri, who were taken to court on obscenity charges after Vella Gera's short story 'Li Tkisser Sewwi' was published on the University and Junior College-distributed magazine Ir-Realta'.

De Marco also proposed that the Film and Stage Classification Board be dissolved, to give way to a more relaxed system of self-regulation which would leave it up to theatre directors, producers and sometimes venue owners to age-rate their productions.

The proposal was discussed in parliament last Tuesday, and was approved in its second reading.

According to Mario de Marco, "the next step is now for the classification bill to go to committee stage, before a third reading in parliament. This next phase is hoped to be concluded very soon in the coming weeks".

De Marco also said that more detailed proposals prepared by a consultative team chaired by former judge Giovanni Bonello will attempt to "determine whether there exists unreasonable restrictions within the law and if so, to propose amendments to it".

"The findings and proposals of the team have been the subject of a public consultation exercise held over summer, and the ministry hopes to move forward on these recommendations over the following weeks," de Marco added.

While welcoming this new development, Bonnici - a vocal critic of the censorship law, who had pledged his active support for Vella Gera and Camilleri during the Realta court ordeal - questioned the timing of the decision.

"It is obvious and evident that once the Nationalist Party lost the divorce referendum, out of convenience, and not out of conviction, it had to embrace a number of so-called liberal issues, including the issue of freedom of artistic expression," Bonnici said.

READ MORE: Classification laws borne out of 'convenience not conviction'.

He added that more needed to be done in order to completely secure freedom of expression.

"Now that we have determined that an artist is free to communicate his message, subject to rules of self-classification, we still have to brush up the rules and laws on what happens after the message is communicated.

"There must be a red line somewhere, but the existing red line - or the way the existing red line is interpreted by the prosecutors of the country - is too stringent, as Mark Camilleri and Alex Vella Gera would tell you. We are still being regulated by the red line or the interpretation of the red line which was set by legislators more than 40 years ago, and this is simply not on."

Unifaun Theatre founder and Stitching producer Adrian Buckle welcomed the news, and described the development as a sign that Maltese society is "maturing".

"We see this in the arts and in life around us. The censors wanted to arrest this maturity in favour of religious prudishness but fortunately, good sense has prevailed."

Buckle thanked Mario de Marco, Owen Bonnici, Labour MP Evarist Bartolo and Alternattiva Demokratika for their support on the issue as the case was ongoing.

Surprisingly, he also expressed his gratitude for the work of Therese Friggeri, the chairperson of the Film and Stage Classification Board at the time.

"Without her short-sighted efforts, censorship would never have been removed," Buckle said.