Maltese laws related to freedom of expression need to be updated to reflect 21st century reality according to a draft National Cultural Policy to be launched in the first week of February.
A spokesman for the Culture Ministry told The Sunday Times the draft policy had been approved by Cabinet and included the recommendation that the ministry should start a process of updating Maltese legislation.
The news comes just two days after police confirmed they will be charging a 21-year-old history postgraduate, who is also editor of student publication Realta with offences connected with distributing obscene or pornographic material after he
published a graphic short story containing sexual violence. Mark Camilleri could face a prison sentence if convicted.
Camilleri said he never expected so much hassle when he chose to publish the first-person narrative about sexual violence. He said the University authorities acted irresponsibly and hypocritically , and when he tried to contact them
to discuss the issue, he was always ignored: They are meant to be working in the students' interest, but instead they are doing a disservice to students. They didn't even have the decency to meet us.
The University rector banned the newspaper Ir-Realta and reported the case to the police after it carried an article in Maltese written by Alex Vella Gera. Dr Lauri said: We are not passing judgment. But since there was a possibility he broke
regulations, it was our duty to inform the police. If it emerges that he didn't break the law, then we are fine.
Camilleri's case has already been taken up in solidarity by lawyers Alex Sciberras and Lara Dimitrijevic. If they lose the case, they are prepared to take it to the European Court of Human Rights.
A protest opposing Malta's censorship laws will be organised at City Gate on February 24, with organisers seeking as many people as possible to make their voices heard.
The organising group, Front Kontra ċ-Ċensura , was set up in the wake of a 21-year-old editor of a student newspaper facing Court charges over an article.
The October edition of Realtà featured a short story – Li Tkisser Sewwi by Alex Vella Gera – whose explicit content led the university to remove it from campus and to report its editor, Mark Camilleri, to the police.
The Front includes the Realtà Collective, the newspaper's producers, and a number of other groups, including the youth wings of Alternattiva Demokratika and the Labour Party as well as Unifaun Theatre Productions, whose production of the
play Stitching was banned in early 2009.
The group's Facebook page has attracted over 3,000 members and it hopes that it will similarly attract large numbers its upcoming protest.
The group plans to organise a National Protest Against Censorship to attract a larger crowd. Starting at City Gate at 1700h on February 24, the group aims to move down Republic Street to the Palace, where it will present proposals to
remove artistic censorship to MPs as they enter the building.
In the meantime, Camilleri is awaiting his arraignment in Court. He faces a possible jail term for distributing obscene or pornographic material and for injuring public morals or decency.
Many with red crosses painted on their mouths, a crowd of about 300 people, including politicians and personalities from various cultural fields, walked down Valletta's main thoroughfare to protest against censorship in a Maltese society that does not tolerate what is out of the norm
Organised by 11 student organisations who came together to form the Front Against Censorship, the protest attracted a strong presence of actors, students, writers and theatre personalities.
We came here to make history. We believe that no one has the right to determine what other people can read, Ingram Bondin, from Front Against Censorship, said.
In the sight of the protest were five laws on censorship, which, the promoters insisted, are antiquated and outdated and carry harsh prison sentences.
They are calling on the authorities to repeal the law banning anyone from making any form of artistic criticism of the country's official religion and to eliminate the Stage and Film Classification Board's power to censor or ban plays and films.
They also want to remove a clause in the Press Act stipulating that print material cannot carry any criticism of public morals and to abolish the Broadcasting Authority's power to ban adult programmes after 9 p.m.
The promoters of the protest also want to see changes to the Pornography Act which, they believe, contains a blanket definition of sex.
Writer Alex Vella Gera is to be taken to court for his text story containing explicit language published on student publication Ir-Realta' .
Student editor Mark Camilleri, 22, is already undergoing criminal proceedings for publishing Vella Gera's story Li Tkisser Sewwi in the October issue of the University campus newspaper. The case has generated much controversy.
The author is now facing the same charges as Camilleri and the court case is expected to be heard on April 20. Camilleri is being charged with breaching Article 208 of the Criminal Code, which deals with the distribution of pornographic or
obscene material among others, which could lead to a prison sentence of up to six months or a fine of up to €465.87.
He is also being charged with Articles 3 and 7 of the Press Act, which in this case deal with printed matter directly or indirectly injuring public morals or decency . Under these charges, guilty parties could face up to three months in
prison or a fine.
The contentious story, written in 1997, dealt with the male narrator's sexual exploits, written in crude language, and included detailed references to sex with the various women he had. The author said the story had already been published on a
blog around five years ago.
A group which represents 90 authors, artists and other people involved in culture, has written to the Minister of Injustice and the Parliamentary Secretary for Culture urging them to stop the absurd criminal proceedings being taken against
editor Mark Camilleri and author Alex Vella Gera for their article in Ir-Realta.
Grupp said the two government members are politically responsible for the persecution of the author and editor, and for the direct assault on freedom of expression and artistic freedom .
Such actions place our country in the same league as anti-democratic and intolerant regimes, which over the years have garnered a reputation for repressing freedom of thought and expression, whether they use violent means to do so or rely on
legal arguments to justify their actions.
The group also appealed to the justice minister and the parliamentary secretary, in their respective remits, to abolish censorship of the arts, to update laws defining obscenity and to stop the criminalisation of art .
The assistance of Malta's MEPs for the removal of censorship is being sought by the Front Against Censorship which in a letter to the country's representatives in the EU said it was very worrying that the Maltese were still not enjoying some of
the most fundamental European freedoms.
The Front said that 2009 would be remembered as the year when the supposedly modern and European Maltese State escalated its actions against freedom of speech through draconian actions such as the punishment of carnival revellers for dressing up
as Christ, the ban of the play Stitching , the threat of a prison sentence to a newspaper editor for publishing an erotic story and the suspended prison sentence to an artist for a visual which criticised the Catholic religion.
The Front said censorship on arts and entertainment went against the core European principles of liberty and freedom of expression: We are humbly urging you to present this case of affairs to the European Parliament in order to raise the alarm
on a European level regarding Malta's repressive and outdated censorship laws.
The Front Against Censorship has handed MPs a document proposing the abolition of censorship in Malta.
The group said that explicit and mandatory censorship of the arts and entertainment was being imposed mainly through the courts as a result of outdated laws; the Malta Broadcasting Authority, the Board of Film and Stage Classification and also
the University of Malta which is supposed to nurture artistic freedom and not suppress it.
It is highly unacceptable and even offensive by EU standards, let alone by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that censorship is prevailing in Malta of the 21st century.
The group said it was not referring to the censorship of hate-speech which maliciously belittled specific groups in society, but about censorship which only seemed to defend and uphold the morality of the predominant religion, or any other
religion for that matter.
We believe that the Catholic Church has a right to preach its values to society openly and freely. We will defend that right should it be denied in some form or other, directly or indirectly. We will never agree, however, that the values of
the Church are the values of Maltese society in its entirety, despite the fact that the Roman Catholic faith is predominant. Individuals should have the right to express themselves in a free and unfettered manner in the same way that the Chursh
is free to preach its values openly and freely.
The Front proposed the repeal of Article 163 of the Criminal Code, which states that:
Whosoever by words, gestures, written matter, whether printed or not, or pictures or by some other visible means, vilifies the Roman Catholic Apostolic Religion which is the religion of Malta, or gives offence to the Roman
Catholic Apostolic Religion by vilifying those who profess such religion or its ministers, or anything which forms the object of, or is consecrated to, or is necessarily destined for Roman Catholic worship, shall, on conviction, be liable to
imprisonment for a term from one to six months.
Similarly, it proposed the removal of article 164 of the Criminal Code, which imposes similar constraints on criticising other religions recognised by the State. This article states that:
Whosoever commits any of the acts referred to in the last preceding article against any cult tolerated by law, shall, on conviction, be liable to imprisonment for a term from one to three months.
The group said it was calling for a change in the definition of pornography in article 208 of the Criminal Code. Under the current law, that which is considered obscene and pornographic is decided by a particular parliamentary committee.
The only time this committee met was in 1975.
The definition given was Work is obscene or pornographic when its dominant feature is the exploitation of, or unnecessary emphasis on, sex, criminality, fear, cruelty and violence. We propose that this definition should be changed to any
product which graphically depicts sexual acts with the intent of causing sexual arousal. The distribution and production of pornography should not be illegal as long as it does not involve human trafficking, the abuse of minors, the exploitation
of the human person or any other criminal acts defined by law.
The group called for the repeal of article 7 of the Press Act which states that:
Whosoever, by any means mentioned in article 3, directly or indirectly, or by the use of equivocal expressions, shall injure public morals or decency shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding
three months or to a fine or to both such imprisonment and fine.
It also called for the abolition of the role of a centrally-appointed Classification Board for theatre performances and film, which has the authority to block and censor and to establish a set of criteria for self-classification in the performing
arts based on a consultation exercise among the performing arts community. All classification systems (including self-classification for performances and classification for cinema) should be based on a list of established and transparent
criteria, which should be made publicly available, and which should be re-evaluated from time to time in the light of international developments in these art forms.
Lastly, it called for the removal of article 13 of the Broadcasting Act which states that :
nothing is included in the programmes which offends against religious sentiment, good taste or decency or is likely to encourage or incite to crime or to lead to disorder or to be offensive to public feeling.
The Front said this should be replaced with a paragraph which allows such mentioned content from 10pm onwards.
The Labour Party welcomed the acquittal of Mark Camilleri, editor of student newspaper Ir-Realta and writer Alex Vella Gera, who had been accused of publishing pornographic and obscene material.
The party said it felt that the law against the distribution of porn and obscene material should be used for their purpose only, and not to threaten imprisonment for authors and writers. It urged the government not to appeal the sentence and
instead to modernise the laws on freedom of artistic expression, in agreement with the opposition.
Following the court judgement, Camilleri said an apology was the least that University Rector Juanito Camilleri could do after having reported the case, and added that it would be good if he stepped down.
Vella Gera described the verdict as a step for freedom of expression in Malta and said artists would therefore not feel they should resort to self-censorship.
Vella Gera had written the article entitled Li tkisser sewwi, a graphic piece of fiction about sexual violence. The 1,300-word story was a first-person narrative by a sex-craved Maltese man who spoke in degrading and sexual terms
about women, whom he treats like objects.
The newspaper was distributed at the University before being banned and reported to the police by Prof Camilleri. The editor and the writer were accused of distributing obscene or pornographic material and for undermining public morals or
decency, under both the Criminal Code and the Press Act.
The court said the prosecution had produced no evidence to define public morality in Malta and how it had been infringed. The court felt that public morality was something which changed over time, and what offended public morals 20 or 30 years
ago did not necessarily do so now as realities changed, including the media.
Furthermore, the publication was limited to students of the University and the Junior College, who were mature students who had free access to a variety of media including books, newspapers and the internet.
It had not been shown how Ir-Realta offended their morality. The writer had exercised his freedom of expression through a literary work and no crime had resulted, the court said.
The writer of a controversial short story must realise that there is God above everything and everyone, who is surely greater than the greatest of egos, Attorney General Peter Grech said in his appeal against the writer's acquittal.
Alex Vella Gera was accused of distributing pornography and offending public morals through his short story Li Tkisser Sewwi, which was published in the October 2009 edition of student newspaper Ir-Realta . The newspaper's editor,
Mark Camilleri, was similarly charged.
Both were acquitted by Magistrate Audrey Demicoli on March 14. In her decison, the magistrate noted that the story adopted an in your face style to make readers uncomfortable and make them think, and said that the writing could not be
considered pornographic or obscene under the legal definition -- which states that obscene material is that which simply aims to corrupt its reader.
The magistrate added noted that the prosecution did not prove what public morals were or how these were offended. She also said that the 2 were exercising their freedom of expression, and that the newspaper's intended audience, university and
Junior College students, were mature enough to process it.
But the Attorney General has filed an appeal against both acquittals, stating that Magistrate Demicoli's verdict was erroneous and unreasonable. He dismissed claims that the writing in question had any artistic merit or was in the general
interest, stating, at one point, that not every writer could compare himself to DH Lawrence, Oscar Wilde and James Joyce.
This writing is, from start to finish, without pause, without a change in style, an explicit reproduction of sexual acts, including some violent ones, anal and vaginal, with a clear erotic meaning apart from a detailed description of sexual
organs and diseases with disgusting consequences which are the result of sexual abuse, Grech wrote in his appeal.
He said that freedom of expression was far from absolute and could be made to bow down completely in the interest of defence, public security, public order, morality, public decency and public health.
He also criticised the drawing attached to the controversial story, a tube of glue, stating that it was evocative and could be understood as a representation of a phallic symbol with semen coming out of it.
He insisted that the charges brought against Vella Gera were proven beyond doubt, and urged the Court to find him guilty and sentence him accordingly.