The Malta Independent 4 December 2021, Saturday

FIRST: Freedom of Speech... The Battle that shaped an Entire Maltese generation

First Magazine Friday, 25 August 2017, 12:33 Last update: about 5 years ago

By Julian Cardona

Freedom of speech is the privilege of the dead. At least according to Mark Twain who in his acidic 1905 essay, 'The Privilege of the Grave', concluded bitterly that "murder is sometimes punished, free speech always."

More than two hundred years have passed and our chests inflate with the assurance that things have changed. We climb atop our rooftops and openly declare our childless marriages, state-only weddings and Eurovision hatred, knowing well that we'll meet neither derision nor dismissal.

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Down from the rooftops and onto the land of Malta, reality hits and you start wondering whether Twain was onto something.  Malta is a country that holds dearly to its perceived definition- drift away and you'll be marked with a scarlet letter. With the abolition of the law criminalizing the vilification of religion, Malta has entered unchartered territories. The divide between the seculars and those who believe that the Roman Catholic religion should guide our constitution is more evident than ever, proving that the bandwagon of time is leaving many behind. The imaginary ethical line is being moved, stretched, erased by some and widened by others. Newspapers, Tv and radio stations are all pregnant with such debates that range from the logical to the evangelical. And so, it begs the question: why is it that in a country in which now everyone can make fun of everyone both on and above the land, many still feel that freedom of speech is still a mirage?

Comparisons always help. Starting with the press, the Reporters Without Borders rank Malta 47th in their World Press Freedom index. Just to get an idea, countries like Romania, Burkina Faso, Ghana and others whom many Maltese might call Third World have fared better than us. Some might console themselves with the fact that we have been ranked above Italy and Japan. But why so low? First of all, the index was compiled by first developing a questionnaire and sending it to media professionals all over the world and then measure country performance based on important criteria such as pluralism, transparency, media independence etc.  Malta lost marks due to the ease with which politicians sue journalists and also the fact that a well-known blogger had her account frozen after publishing compromising information.

What about Art? Maltese Artists are also known to slam into walls. Who can forget the Stitching Saga, a play unfairly banned from our theatres, or the now infamous short story "Li Tkisser Sewwi" that appeared on the student newspaper Ir- Realta and ended up dragging both author and editor to the court on accounts of inciting pornography. Speaking of Pornography, or its proxies, Playboy entered Malta only in 2001.  To be fair, censorship laws have been relaxed by the present administration but the general feeling still remains that the important link between freedom of artistic expression and democracy are not fully grasped in Malta, Art being mostly relegated to a benign entertainment vehicle. Thus, according to the avantgarde judges that presided the Stitching ruling, Art "cannot be used to cover blasphemy and hurt the sensitivities of the silent citizen." If you believe these times are behind us, just ask the guys at New York Best who recently had their Last Supper Advert destroyed by unpatriotic vandals.

The court's statement that outlawed Stitching is a good representation of the views of a significant portion of the population. Basically, they feel that freedom should have an alarm system: God and human body parts being the shrillest. Thou shalt say what thou wilt as long as Jesus, genitalia and the whole entourage are left out of it. One can imagine what happens when the two are combined: just ask those who tried to promote Scorcese's banned movie The Last Temptation of Christ, which mischievously asked the shameful question of whether Jesus had actually fallen in love and raised a family. Such outrage. The irony is that Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, a movie known for its disturbing, gory violence, was classified as fit for all by the Maltese board of Censorship.

It is clear that something other than logic is at the helm. In a country where God is first and Nation second, false patriots are marching with their stained flags, clinging tightly to prejudices that keep their majorities intact.  They do this by claiming that too much freedom is the prologue of downfalls. Human dignity is at stake, they claim: we are better than animals. But I do get the feeling that a limit to freedom usually never coincides with their freedoms.

Of course, no topic is outside the domain of argumentation, including a capping on freedom. The rational would draw the line at messages that incite violence, racism, and abuse of any kind. It sounds simple enough but human nature has a way of creating mazes out of open space. What if we discuss limits to immigration? Is that racism? What if we write lyrics to a song that openly denounce God, or even mock him (her?). Is that abuse of Catholics? The distinction, in my opinion, should be made between the person and the idea. Religion is an idea, beloved by many, but an idea nonetheless. It should be analysed, criticised, dissected and improved just like any other notion that does not have strict proofs as its forte. Limits to Immigration is another idea which has to be discussed seriously and dispassionately. No Catholics or Immigrants should be harmed in the process.

What about opinions? Can I be of the opinion that blacks are a lesser ethnicity? It pains me to write it but it is a question that needs to be addressed. It is my belief that an opinion risks losing its title when it teeters at the brink of neutrality. I prefer blondes to brunettes is neutral; I prefer Whites to Blacks borders on discrimination. When opinions veer so strongly away from impartiality then the person who harbours them might become a weapon if trusted with a top position. He will always be free to opine of course, but a country must be free to remove him from influence.

Which leads me to journalists. Their influence being second to none, Press freedom is as important as their responsibilities. Indexes such as the one cited above are to be made public because a Government that harshens the consequences of speech is a Government that has something to hide.  At the same time, Fake News is a crime against a nation. Simple as that. It is thus fundamental that the public raise their expectations and sharpen their filters. Governments and journalists have their own agendas often leading to results that are sub optimal for the general public. The best defence against their indulgences is not a law but a demand for higher standards.

Ultimately, we must remember that freedom is not simply a political philosophy or a cause fought by dreadlocked, pot-smokers: it is the very essence of humanity. Freedom of expression has given birth to art, literature, songs and science that have defined generations. To be human is to be free and those who deny this freedom are usually afraid of what their instincts might reveal. Religion and artistic interpretation should not be mutually exclusive, nor should media and truth. Done well, they can reveal subtleties of the human condition that are unreachable by books and scholars. I look forward to living in a Malta that is defined by this freedom: we have achieved so much whilst bound, just imagine what places we could reach if set free.


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