‘Adults shouldn’t be told what they can and cannot watch’ – Owen Bonnici

Justice and Culture Minister Owen Bonnici says the “State cannot play moral custodian” while welcoming landmark amendments to censorship and blasphemy laws

Owen Bonnici:
Owen Bonnici: "We need to recognise that morality changes over time"
Mark Camilleri:
Mark Camilleri: "One hopes that the government remains on this progressive trajectory"

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Justice and Culture Minister Owen Bonnici announced the new amendments to the censorship and blasphemy laws, which he said “make good on the Labour Party’s promises in opposition” to prevent the further criminalisation of artists and citizens based on archaic laws pertaining to obscenity and ‘vilification of religion’.

The new policy, revealed by MaltaToday Midweek yesterday, will be a far-reaching legal reform that will strike off criminal sanctions on the vilification of religion, bringing Maltese law in line with 21st century European laws.

In a package of laws that will fine-tune the Criminal Code, Bonnici presented new amendments to remove laws that punish the vilification of the Roman Catholic religion “and other cults tolerated by law”, laws that have been in place since 1933.

And obscenity laws introduced in 1975 under a Labour government, which generically outlawed articles that ‘unduly emphasised sex, crime, horror, cruelty and violence’, will also be removed. Pornography will now be defined as something which is made with the express aim to sexually arouse, and will be allowed to be distributed to adults, provided appropriate warnings will be given.

Meanwhile, it is only examples of ‘extreme pornography’ that will be banned outright, defined as an act which threatens a person’s life, an act which results in a person’s severe injury, rape or a non-consensual sexual activity, sexual activity involving a human corpse, and any act involving a person an animal.

“We need to recognise that morality changes over time – it is not a static thing, and legislation needs to acknowledge this,” Bonnici said during a press conference announcing the changes this morning at St James Cavalier, Valletta. He added that, “the State cannot play moral custodian,” and insofar as the laws will impact art and culture, added that “adults should not be told what they can and cannot watch”.

Bonnici stressed that, however, the new amendments will also aim to safeguard social and racial minorities, since the law will not allow for the vilification of any minority work.

The obscenity trial of novelist Alex Vella Gera and the publisher of a university pamphlet, Mark Camilleri, who reprinted a short story by Vella Gera, was the cause célèbre for the anti-censorship movement.

Vella Gera and Camilleri were acquitted of obscenity charges on Li Tkisser Sewwi, first by a court that found in favour of their fundamental right to freedom of expression.

In fact, Mark Camilleri, now the Executive Chairman of the National Books Council, was also present at the conference, and welcomed the amendments, saying that “we can now confirm that the Labour Party kept to its word on this matter”.

“These amendments send a clear message that the State and police should not be able to intervene on the work of artists,” Camilleri added, reiterating that the law will protect minors from work that isn’t suitable for them, while also aiming to safeguard minorities.

“One hopes that the government remains on this progressive trajectory,” Camilleri added.

Extreme pornography: tricky to define

Speaking to MaltaToday, Andrew Sciberras, part of the legal team charged with assembling the new law, ensured that “strong defenses” are in place for however falls foul of these new amendments, and that each case will be allowed to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Sciberras explained that the amendments are based on the British equivalent of the same laws, which he admitted were “not without their controversy”. He was referring specifically to the ‘extreme porn laws’, which led to protests following their introduction in the UK in 2008.

This law has proven to be problematic when it comes to, for example, pornography of the bondage-and-masochism (BDSM) genre, which while often suggestive of violent activity by definition, could also be presented in a fictionalized setting, and performed in a safe environment.

“Whichever way you look at it, there’s always going to be problems. But you try to at least do away with the generic definitions of obscenity and pornography,” Sciberras said, adding that in all cases, the context of the work in question – be it visual or a work of literature – will be considered in context to determine whether its worth is solely pornographic or not.