‘I love the Republic’, says anti-censorship campaigner

Attorney General who appealed against acquittal of author, sat on honours' committee that nominated Camilleri and Vella Gera

Mark Camilleri and Alex Vella Gera
Mark Camilleri and Alex Vella Gera

Mark Camilleri "loves the Republic" and has not shied away from endorsing the Republic Day honour awarded to him on Friday in recognition of his campaign against Malta's censorship laws which, as irony would have it, are yet to be changed and brought well into the 21st century.

It was not the only irony of the day.

Republic Day under the new Labour government was a celebration of a wide array of people who had served the country, from the Armed Forces' maritime unit to the winners of the Junior Eurovision Song Contest. But while it toasted transgender Joanne Cassar, who fought government in the European Court of Human Rights for refusing to recognise her right to marry a man, it handed an honorary honour to former USSR ambassador Valentina Matvienko, the Russian Federation Council speaker who approves the Saint Petersburg assembly law project, that penalizes gay propaganda.

Yet it was Alex Vella Gera's refusal of his own medal for service to the republic, that stole the show. Like Camilleri he was nominated for his role in the censorship debacle provoked by his short story 'Li Tkisser Sewwi', that embroiled the two men in an criminal obscenity case that illustrated much that was wrong with Maltese law-making.

"I cannot accept an honour from the Maltese political class which, apart from some exception, has been causing so much damage to my country," Vella Gera, who lives in Brussels, announced on Facebook. "I feel I've made the right choice not to involve myself in this farce, where someone who is given a national honour becomes a pawn in the insidiousness of the Maltese political game."

The 25-year-old Mark Camilleri rose to prominence when a student pamphlet he edited, entitled Ir-Realtà, was reported to the police by the University of Malta rector Juanito Camilleri, specifically for the short story 'Li Tkisser Sewwi' penned by published author Alex Vella Gera. To the public's general outrage, the two men faced obscenity charges and faced jail, but they were acquitted by both the criminal court and the court of appeal. The subject of censorship became a TV mainstay in 2011 and 2012, and Camilleri fronted the Front Against Censorship.

Camilleri, a history graduate who is pursuing his academic studies, was not forgotten by the Labour government, accepting the role of chairman of the National Book Council earlier this year.

But although his absent-mindedness saw him failing to even attend Friday's award ceremony, Camilleri has defended his decision to accept the award Vella Gera renounced. 

"I love the Republic and I say this with utmost moral and political conviction: this is a Republic founded on left-wing principles and on the struggle for freedom, against colonialism and poverty," Camilleri wrote on his blog yesterday. "I believe that we should celebrate the Republic in many ways possible, including by giving awards to distinguished individuals who have contributed in a way or another to the development of our Republic."

He said he accepted the award with profound humility, saying he did not consider himself either "distinguished" or able to reach the heights of the men and women who led the struggle that resulted in the Republic: Manwel Dimech, Guze Ellul Mercer, Dom Mintoff, Agatha Barbara and the Dockyard workers

"If the right wing of the country has been infuriated with my nomination, then I am confident that I am doing the right thing, and hence will not change the path that I have chosen."

On his part, the best-selling author of Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi said he was refusing the honour in the "name of a future where genuine, independent spirit is truly freed from the cage of partisanship, and in the name of those forces who fight the superficiality and mediocrity of this republic."

Attorney General on honours committee

Perhaps the weirdest quality of the Republic Day honours for Camilleri and Vella Gera was the fact that Attorney General Peter Grech, who had appealed their acquittal, sits on the honours' committee that nominates the awards.

Grech famously submitted in the government's appeal of the verdict acquitting author Vella Gera Camilleri, pushing the line that "God is certainly bigger than the biggest of egos of even more famous writers."

His lengthy 32-page appeal argued that Vella Gera had admitted writing his short story "on impulse" and "without any form of self-censorship". "He was free to write what he wanted without self-censorship. But the author must realize there are others living with him, whose ideas, preferences and tastes are unlike his; a society that must be protected, and its morality preserved.

"And there's God above everything and above everyone, and God is certainly bigger than the biggest of egos of even more famous writers."

Grech specifically quotes Vella Gera's statement to the court in which he says he wanted to give readers total immersion in his first-person monologue, narrated by a sex-driven man who treats women sordidly, "without any moralism, in the sense that I didn't include the voice of God saying 'look you're going wrong'."

What would otherwise be interpreted as the absence of a conscience in the controversial character of 'Li Tkisser Sewwi', the Attorney General states in his appeal that Vella Gera exhibited "the apex of individualistic views to the detriment of the common good, that is trampled upon by those who, in their anti-juridical and contorted interpretation of freedom of expression, try to expose and impose their ego and individualistic interests to the detriment of the innocent."

Grech also submitted that Vella Gera's work "was not in the public interest" and that witnesses Lino Spiteri, the novelist and former miniter; philosopher Profs. Kenneth Wain, writer Albert Gatt, anthropologist Ranier Fsadni, poets Maria Grech Ganado and Adrian Grima and actor Toni Attard - presented by the defence - were not court experts but expressed their subjective opinion.

Vella Gera and Camilleri were acquitted on by Magistrate Audrey Demicoli, who noted in her judgment that the law did not provide clear definitions of 'pornography' and 'obscenity', and that the prosecution had failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Article 208 of the Criminal Code had been breached.

But most importantly, she observed that the defendants were exercising their fundamental right to freedom of expression.

Abdullah alhrbi
My objection to Mark Camilleri receiving and accepting this award is that in his heart of hearts he knows that he is only a very small footnote in the narrative leading to the emancipation of creative expression in Malta. Nor can he really ever owe up to any real service to Maltese literature, that honour on that account should have gone to Immanuel Mifsud. Mark Camilleri didn't set out to actively challenge anything and he knows this. There were other more worthy exponents who consciously took up the cudgels against censorship and didn't beat retreat when most didnt support their cause. He now however, has the undisputed attention of the creative sector who will measure how far he will go in upholding the right to free creative expression. Judging him by his performance on the book council I must say things are already going awry for him.
In retrospect I am perplexed by our legal system which penalises some free spirited sex related language and allows poisonous and deliberate vehemence to be scribbled without punishment. Vella Gera is right in refusing the hypocricy of a republic which is not truly a republic until it is liberated from the dominance of class who impose themselves as demi-gods saying what they want without censorship and prohibiting others from the freedom of expression right. What is most scandalous sex, vehemence, or the classism? Prosit Vella Gera for giving this country and especially the hypocrits, a good lesson. I admire your courage to solidly stand by your principles.
Good for you Mark unlike Alex who a little media exposure has gone to his head. I wonder how he would have acted if he won the Pulitzer Prize.
dan camilleri donnu xi laburist prim, mhux ta' b'xejn ma rrifjutax!