Bonnici toasts final nail in censorship’s coffin as sign of ‘freer, more open society’

Culture minister joined by anti-censorship activists and artists in hailing passing into law of anti-censorship bill

Minister Owen Bonnici (centre). Photo: DOI/Reuben Piscopo
Minister Owen Bonnici (centre). Photo: DOI/Reuben Piscopo

Justice and culture minister Owen Bonnici hailed the passing into law of a bill that removes censorship and decriminalises the vilification of religion, as a law that would permit a more open and stronger society.

Bonnici’s press conference at the House of Representatives was attended by members of the National Book Council, the St James Centre for Creativity as well as various artists, musicians and performing arts producers.

“We have made it clear in this law that hate speech on religion, that which incites violence, is unacceptable. We have increased protection for vulnerable people from extreme pornography and from revenge porn. Malta is one of the few European countries to have criminalised revenge porn.

“But we have also opened the doors for more artistic freedom,” Bonnici said, flanked by Mark Camilleri, today the National Book Council’s chairman, who had been acquitted of obscenity charges for publishing a short story by novelist Alex Vella Gera.

“Today we have journeyed to a society that is stronger by being more open to artistic expression. I am convinced our country today is much freer while having protected the more vulnerable members of our society against hate speech.”

Mark Camilleri had words of praise for the government’s effort in seeing Bill 133, which he co-wrote together with lawyer Andrew Sciberras, finally beign passed into law.

Theatre director Adrian Buckle also welcomed the law. His company Unifaun had been stopped by the film and theatre classification board – now defunct since 2012 – from putting on stage Anthony Nielsen’s Stitching back in 2009. The decision was upheld by the Maltese constitutional court and that ruling is now being appealed in the European Court of Human rights.

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 productions 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”.

MP Jason 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.