The Maltese parliamentary committee set up in January to define what constituted an obscenity is still at the initial stages , according to Labour MP Owen Bonnici, who had pushed for its establishment.
Dr Bonnici, who sits on the committee with MPs Evarist Bartolo, Beppe Fenech Adami and Francis Zammit Dimech, said there had been preliminary talks but he hoped work shifted up a gear soon and was optimistic there would be progress.
The definition of what constitutes an obscenity, last updated in 1975, became even more pertinent this week after an amendment to the Criminal Code came into force on Friday raising the maximum penalty for distributing or displaying pornographic or obscene
material from imprisonment for six months and a fine of €465.87 to 12 months and a fine of €3,000. The amendment law was approved unanimously in Parliament on June 15.
The Front Against Censorship lambasted the changes, pointing out that, in the absence of a clear definition of obscenity, the law could be used to prosecute cases such as that of student editor Mark Camilleri and writer Alex Vella Gera, who
landed in court over a satirical story detailing the sexual exploits of a man in explicit language on issue eight of campus magazine Ir-Realtà.
The Front said it was disappointed at the fact that instead of repealing the harsh prison terms, which would be the shame of any European nation, the law has actually been amended to increase them . Whoever voted in favour of this Act
not only agreed with the draconian proceedings taken against the student newspaper but also wanted to punish such activities more harshly .
It suggested changing the definition of pornography from work featuring the exploitation of, or unnecessary emphasis on, sex, criminality, fear, cruelty and violence to any product which graphically depicts sexual acts with the intent
of causing sexual arousal .
It also called for the removal of articles in the Criminal Code imposing a jail term for anyone vilifying Catholicism or any cult tolerated by law as well as the abolition of the centrally-appointed classification board for drama and film,
calling instead for a list of publicly available established and transparent criteria , updated in the light of the international situation, to be used during the classification process.
Moreover, it called for the removal of article 7 of the Press Act which lays down a jail term of up to three months for directly or indirectly injuring public morals through the media.
Finally, it called for a removal of the wording of article 13 in the Broadcasting Act which says that 'nothing is included in the programmes which offends 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' and replace it with a paragraph which allows such mentioned content from 10 p.m. onwards.
Malta's Labour leader Joseph Muscat has admitted that his party did not mean to back a legal amendment that has introduced tougher penalties for the distribution and production of pornography.
He said the controversial amendment to Article 208 of the Criminal Code, approved by Parliament in April, was passed as a measure of stealth by the government, having been sold to the Opposition as part of a package of laws to
strengthen penalties for child pornography .
The amendment to the article was made together with various other amendments to laws mostly relating to child pornography.
Admitting that his party had not carefully evaluated what it approved, Dr Muscat said his MPs would not have backed the legal changes had they known they did not have anything to do with child pornography or protecting vulnerable people.
The 'furore' over censorship that marked 2011's ban on the play Stitching has inspired a draft censorship law. Tourism and culture minister Mario de Marco unveiled a draft law for the self-regulation of theatre productions.
De Marco said a new system of self-regulation will allow producers to set age limits for audiences on new guidelines.
A new four-member guidance board will issue guidelines to be adopted by stage producers when awarding an age-classification to the production and to assist producers who seek its counsel by suggesting appropriate age-classifications for their
stage productions, or confirming the age-classification given by the producer and director in the first instance.
The board will be chaired by Adrian Mamo, chairman of the Malta Council for Culture and Arts.
The proposed roles of the guidance board also include the presentation of complaints from the general public about the age-classification given to a production with the Board issuing its advice on whether the age-classification should be reviewed
or not. Such advice is not binding on the producer and director, however it must be made public in order to better inform the public.
The government has now launched for public consultation the amendments to the Stage and Film Classification. The consultation process is open for a period of three weeks and ends on the 7 February 2012.
Amendments on the film industry include the reconstitution of the existing Board to a Board of Film Age-Classification, which shall be responsible for the a priori classification of films. The Board of Film Age-Classification will be placed under
a duty to publish the age-classifications given to films, citing the reasons for such a classification. The board will no longer be responsible for theatre censorship.
The proposed amendments also include the creation of a film Appeals Board to hear appeals from the aggrieved party in connection with the age-classification given to a named film.
Malta's Ombudsman has issued recommendations on the composition and functions on the new film classification board which will replace the Board of Film and State Censors.
The recommendations were made as the Ombudsman, Chief Justice Emeritus Joseph Said Pullicino, considered a complaint by KRS film importers against the chairman of the current board. KRS complained that in 2010, 28% of the films released locally
were given a higher rating that in the UK.
Judge Said Pullicino noted that the proposed legislation will abolish the Film and Stage Classification Board and create a separate Board of Film Age-Classification, with similar functions to those possessed by the existing Board. In terms of the
proposed regulations, the Film Board will consist of a chairperson and a number of 3-7 members who are appointed by the Minister for Tourism, Culture and the Environment.
The Ombudsman said the persons appointed to the film board should broadly represent the Maltese community. It should include a mixture of men and women with as close to a gender balance as possible, incorporating persons of different ages so that
there is a reasonable spread of age amongst the members. At least one of the members should be well versed in issues affecting children and young people, either as parent or through his previous employment or other activities he is involved in.
The Ombudsman noted that the proposed regulations, like those currently in force, mention that the classification of films is to be carried out in accordance with guidelines to be drawn up by the Film Board but the draft legislation is silent on
whether these should be made available, not only to applicants but also to the general public.
The Ombudsman said the film distributors and the public had the right to know what the guidelines drawn up by the Board will be.
The new rules also require the Film Board to issue, concurrently with the classification, notices to the public containing additional information as to the content of the films classified -- a practice which is already in place in many countries
and which is indispensable since it enables consumers to know which classifiable elements (e.g. coarse language, violence, drug use, nudity etc) have led to the classification decision.
He stressed that loosening state control on censorship does not equate to decriminalisation. Actions violating the new regulations could still be considered, in certain circumstances, an offence punishable at law. The Commissioner of Police still
retained the ultimate right to order a suspension of any screening and the closure of any cinema for a period not exceeding fifteen days for reasons of public order or morality or for non-compliance with any of these Regulations .
Culture Minister Mario de Marco has told the Maltese Parliament that there would be a shift from a preventive system of censorship to a system of self-classification.
Speaking during the debate in the second reading of the Bill amending various laws dealing with the classification of films and stage productions, he said theatrical companies in Malta would be able to classify their own works.
The Bill proposed to transfer the laws regulating classification from the ministry responsible for the police to that responsible for culture. Such regulations would be amalgamated with the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts Act.
Dr de Marco said the legislation would only serve as a framework and the arts sector would become completely self-regulatory. Nevertheless, the Bill did not affect other legislation and essential rules such as laws protecting minorities, minors
and those guarding against libel. He said such laws would remain applicable to the theatrical and film sectors.
Turning to the film sector, Dr De Marco said that new age classification benchmarks were being introduced. The Bill would not change the requirement of obtaining a certificate before viewing, since it was only for theatrical performance that this
requirement would no longer be needed.
Porn shops, cuirrently illegal in Malta, will soon be able to open on the strength of legal reforms that will allow pornographic material to be displayed so long as a clear warning is affixed outside the shop. The warning must read:
Warning. Persons passing beyond this notice will find material on display which they may consider indecent. No admittance to persons under 18 years of age.
It will still be illegal to distribute pornographic material in public places and to expose children or the unsuspecting public to pornographic material.
This is one of a series of legal reforms addressing morality and censorship. Another amendment decriminalises the vilification of religion.
Justice Minister Owen Bonnici said these reforms showed that government did not believe that the State ought to be the moral custodian of adults. He said:
Adults are to be treated as adults... These reforms aim to incentivise freedom of artistic expression while protecting the vulnerable,
Bonnici explained that the legal reforms -- that were in draft stage and would soon be presented in Parliament -- will include the complete removal of articles 163 and 164 of the Criminal Code. This will mean decriminalising the vilification of
the Roman Catholic Apostolic religion and other religions.
The two articles made it illegal to vilify religion by words, gestures, written matter, whether printed or not, or pictures or by some other visible means.)
As reported yesterday, Malta's Justice and Culture Minister Owen Bonnici has announced new amendments to censorship 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.
Obscenity laws introduced in 1975 under a Labour government, which generically outlawed articles that unduly emphasised sex, crime, horror, cruelty and violence , will be repealed.
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.
However examples of extreme pornography will be banned outright. These are 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.
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.
Sciberras added 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
An amendment to Maltese law regarding allowing the opening of sex shops will most likely not lead to a surge in the number of sex shops as people seem to prefer to buy such products online.
Ranier Zammit, the owner of the Maltese online sex shop toysfourplay.com , says he would be reluctant to open an actual shop because of the cultural mentality of the Maltese. Zammit manages his business online and offers free deliveries to all
localities in a discreet manner. He set up his business over 14 years ago and it is still going strong today.
A new law approved by Parliament earlier this week allows for the opening of sex shops, as long as a clear warning sign is visible upon entry. The required notice reads:
Persons beyond this notice will find material on display which they may consider indecent. Persons under 18 years of age are not admitted.
A sex counsellor from Willingness, Matthew Bartolo, believes that a percentage of the Maltese population would not have a problem visiting such shops and buying from them. But he said sex is still an uncomfortable topic and sometimes regarded as
dirty , but thinks that society has managed to move on from the taboo.
A UK advocacy group says that a new Maltese law criminalisig the possession of extreme pornography risks criminalising sexual minorities.
While criminalising pornography depicting bestiality or necrophilia, the new regulations also make it illegal to possess images which portray non-consensual sexual activity or acts that could result in severe injury , even if the images
are staged and all the participants are consenting adults. Anyone convicted under the new law will be liable to up to three years in prison or a fine of up to 6,000 euro.
Backlash has warned that the British law on which the regulations are based has led to several convictions for possession of pornography depicting BDSM (bondage and dominance, sadism and masochism), rough sex and other common, albeit
non-mainstream, sexual preferences. Nick Cowen of Backlash told the Times of Malta:
There is a wide range of material that could be covered by the law's language, but it is unclear whether or how it could be used by prosecutors
This means people face a lot of uncertainty as to what is illegal, which is potentially very damaging to the rule of law. The law can harm anyone experimenting with alternative sexual acts that can be as safe (or safer) than intercourse.
The lawyer who drafted the regulations has argued that there is a legitimate aim to criminalise pornography which might induce certain people to copy what they are seeing but admitted that there was a bit of a grey area as to what
could be prosecuted.