Updated | Religious vilification removed from Maltese law, Archbishop: ‘Lord forgive them…’

Parliament approves, in third reading stage, amendments to the Criminal Act that repeal legislation that censured the vilification of religion, decriminalises pornography and criminalises revenge porn

Marching against censorship in 2012: Mark Camilleri, right, was acquitted of peddling obscenities when he published a short story by acclaimed novelist Alex Vella Gera.
Marching against censorship in 2012: Mark Camilleri, right, was acquitted of peddling obscenities when he published a short story by acclaimed novelist Alex Vella Gera.

A law punishing the vilification of the Roman Catholic religion passed its third reading in parliament on Tuesday, when amendments to the Criminal Law including also the decriminalisation of pornography and the criminalisation of revenge porn, were approved.

The law punishing the vilification of the Roman Catholic religion had been in place since 1933 and was used by the authorities to censor works of art, theatre productionsa and even prevent films from being screened.

When he originally presented the proposed amendments in February, justice minister Owen Bonnici sought to allay fears that the law would not allow people to incite religious hatred – noting that the incitement of hatred based on religion, gender, race, sexuality, gender identity or political belief was already illegal as per a more recent law and would remain so.

“In a democratic country, people should be free to make fun of religions, while not inciting hatred,” he had said.

The Nationalist opposition had been harshly opposed to the proposed amendments and had accused the government of “political atheism”, and of adopting policies of “forced secularisation”.

Opposition spokesman Jason Azzopardi had referred to the deadly Paris attacks in November 2015.

“There is trouble beyond our shores,” he said. “I sincerely hoped that the government had since realized that the time is not right to introduce this law, surrounded as we are by hotheads who don’t see reason.”

Indeed, he had stressed that the current law should be made more harsh – so as to criminalise the vilification of other religions, as well as atheism. “Atheists also have a right not to be subjected to vilification,” he said. “A truly progressive mentality would be to protect atheists from vilification as well.”

Azzopardi had insisted that a person’s right to freedom of expression should stop at another person’s right not to see their religious beliefs vilified. “Freedom of expression should not mean that people are free to insult the things that I hold dear – that is diabolical logic.” 

On his part, Archbishop Charles Scicluna tweeted his dismay at news that MPs had, as expected, successfully passed Bill 133. “Demeaning God and man indeed go hand in hand. A sad day for Malta. Lord forgive them: they do not know what they do.”


The new amendments also decriminalise pornography, that is not to be mistaken for “extreme pornography” that remains illegal and includes child pornography, rape videos, disability porn and necrophilia. Live sex shows will also be deemed to be “extreme porn” and therefore illegal.

Bonnici had explained the ultimate aim of the amendments was to guarantee the freedom of artistic expression – an issue that came to the fore when authors Alex Vella Gera and Mark Camilleri were arraigned in court on charges of obscenity for having written a sexually explicit story in a student newspaper.

“We disagree with the concept of a big brother-like government that tells people what they are allowed to watch,” he said. “There should be a red line, not to stifle artistic expression but to protect vulnerable people. We don’t want the Camilleri and Vella Gera case to repeat itself.” 

The new amendments make a legal distinction between pornography and “extreme pornography” and now make the distribution and consumption of pornography legal.

Shops selling pornography will be legal – so long as they are accompanied with clear warnings forbidding children from entering.

However, Bonnici insisted that the reform was in no way proposed to encourage people to open sex shops, and that they would only be permitted as a legal consequence of the removal of laws that stifle artistic expression. 

Under the new law, anybody caught sharing revenge porn pictures or videos by any means will now face a maximum two years’ imprisonment or a fine ranging between €3,000 and €5,000, regardless of whether they had distributed it or continued the chain.