Things have radically improved
The Judgment delivered by the European Court for Human Rights which effectively ruled that the 2010 ban on the play Stitching was wrong is concrete proof of how much things changed under this Government compared to the situation obtaining under a Nationalist administration in the field of civil rights.2010 is not long ago. Most of us will remember the World Cup in South Africa that year or the bailout which was afforded to Greece by the European Union or the cheesy song by Bruno Mars "Just the way you are". These all happened eight years ago.
During that year in Malta, a group of local actors and producers had a play censored and banned by the authorities. The play was written by a Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson and was going to be performed by Malta's top actors and theatre producers.
I honestly could not at the time understand what all the fuss was all about and felt that we were living in a sort of theocratic country where the concept of freedom of speech was reduced to a sick joke. I even attended a rehearsal of the play and I really enjoyed my time since the play was a very good watch. The main actors, Michael Basmadijan and Pia Zammit were amazing and the story line was very intriguing.
At the time I did all I could to show support to those actors and producers, as did the then Leader of the Opposition Joseph Muscat. Back then I wrote in no uncertain terms that what was going on was wrong, that censorship is bad and a new Labour Government would throw all those ancient laws out of the window.
Thing got even worse when two people – an author (Mark Camilleri) and an editor (Vella Gera) – were arraigned in a separate case in front of the Criminal Courts accused of distributing blasphemous literate at University and Junior College. Again the Labour Opposition stood steadfastedly with the authors and artists. Luckily the Courts did not find the artists guilty of breaking criminal law and were acquitted. However, what was going on was not right. It was wrong and we pledged to reform the existing laws to increase artistic freedom of expression.
A few days before the 2013 general elections, Mario de Marco – who in the meantime took over the culture portfolio – issued a sort of apology to artists and tweaked a bit existing laws. It was a step in the right direction but was too little, too late. There was much more which needed to be done to reform antiquated censorship law and we pledged to do precisely that once in Government.
Labour won the subsequent 2013 elections with a large margin.
It was a brilliant opportunity to do what is right, implement change and honour our promises with the artistic community and that is what we did.
After the 2014 reshuffle I immediately started working with a number of experts and artists – including the very same Mark Camilleri – to radically change the laws and get rid once and for all of artistic censorship.
The effort was not without its challenges. Pertinent questions such as – what is art? What is cultural expression? - were being asked in internal working groups. What should be permissible and what should be not? Where is the red line? Should there be a red line after all?
We decided to come up with a law which errs on the side of artistic freedom and liberty of the expression while drawing a red line on expressions which have the aim of causing violence or hate on groups of people of the basis of what they are such as sex, gender and religion. In doing that we had to revisit the notions of pornography and what is extreme pornography. As a side effect we had also to enter into issues such as sex shops regulation.
It was a very interesting and rewarding exercise and in Cabinet I had the full support of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat who totally appreciated that what was being done was necessary and needed. After all it boils down to the kind of society which we want to live in.
Once we published the Bill, the usual suspects came out against it. The Church came out criticising in no uncertain terms new freedoms which were to be afforded to artists to harshly criticise religion and the usual conservative suspects from the Opposition – the Simon Busuttils and Jason Azzopardis of this world – followed suit. They even went as far as dubbing the bill and exercise of "ksuhat" and when push came to shove voted against important parts of the Bill. They claimed that sex shops will start sprouting everywhere in Malta and asked whether this was a new economic niche that the Labour Government wanted to incentivise.
Despite that on a number of issues we were therefore alone in Parliament, the Bill became law in 2016. Today, two years after the passing of the Bill, sex shops are nowhere to be seen, religion is not being vilified left right and centre and most of the rubbish that the Opposition and some pro-PN writers said will happen did not happen.
Rather we have now the most progressive, radical and avant-garde legislation in so far as freedom of expression of artists is concerned!
Ah, I was going to forget one point – the Opposition went as far as to have promised in the last general election that if elected to power it will reverse aspects of the law to introduce new protections against "abuse of freedom of speech". Luckily that did not come to fruition.
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The most beautiful thing about the judgment by the European Court for Human Rights about the 2010 Stitching ban is that artists and the general public know that what has happened back then under a Nationalist administration will not happen again.
Even the most arduous critic of the Labour Party knows that there is no way in hell that under this Government or following the legal reforms which we have put in place Stitching or any other play like Stitching would ever be banned or censored or have the actors or producers arraigned to Court. This is the serenity, the sense of freedom that this Government instilled in such a short time. Through the whole Stitching case, you can sense how much Malta has improved in terms of civil rights and freedom of expression.
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This very same week another important thing occurred. We have finally put into effect the new Media and Defamation Act as of 14th May, 2018, thus throwing once and for all in the dustbin of history criminal libel and other relative criminal provisions which had a chilling effect on journalists.
I have personally piloted an undless number of laws which all had, in no uncertain terms, their challenges, difficulties and complexities. This was, by far, the one which needed most attention to detail and engagement with stakeholders. In fact if one had to compare the first Bill which was approved by Cabinet way back in the last legislature and the final version of the law you would see a whole list of changes and improvements. It is testament to the fact that we truly listen and seek consensus on laws which relate to the core issues of our democracy.
The new law will introduce an unprecedented level of journalistic freedom which I doubt exists anywhere else in Europe. This is a beautiful piece of legislation and I am sure objective analysts will find it very interesting and far-reaching in terms of the liberties it affords to media practitioners.
The first reading of this law took place practically within days of the opening of the new Parliament following the last general election and I am glad that we have officially given birth to this new law this very week.
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One thing which surprises me on the part of the Opposition is how much they fail to understand how evident it is that they adopt double standards in the most atrocious manner.
People see through them but funnily enough the persons on the Opposition benches believe they do not.
For the Opposition, there should be a set of superior rules and standards for anything connected to Labour but a different and normal set of rules and standards connected to them.
I think we all agree that any person should have the right of recourse to a civil remedy by an independent Court of law to safeguard his or her reputation within the realms of proportionality. Honest people work hard to build a good reputation and they should be given the opportunity to protect it by the application of the rule of law through civil means and in a proportional manner.
It seems that even this statement – innocuous and universal it might be – seems unacceptable to the Opposition as long as the person which has his reputation affected is somehow related to the Labour Party. However, all of a sudden that same statement becomes acceptable if the reputation affected is of a person who is somehow related to the Nationalist Party. The flip side is that anything is acceptable to be said about someone connected to the Labour Party but God forbit if a word of criticism is uttered against someone connected to the party in Opposition.
These kind of double standards make people sick.
The yardstick should be one and the same – always. Full freedom of expression – always. Full right to recourse to a fair and impartial tribunal by civil means and in proportionality to safeguard one's reputation – always. A big no to hate speech or fake news – always.
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The reforms which we have undertaken in the last five years have soundly improved our country’s freedom of expression and are a crucial building block towards a more modern, open and democratic country. This Government has made huge strides when it comes to civil liberties, freedom of speech, democracy and the Rule of Law and will keep on working to provide a brighter future for years to come.