Realtà censorship : same old story… since 1860
Perhaps the story of Mark Camilleri, the 21-year-old history student at the University of Malta who is currently facing criminal charges for publishing an ‘obscene’ short story by author Alex Vella Gera in the campus newspaper Realtà, is nothing new.
A court sentence from July 1860, unearthed by Arnold Cassola, professor of comparative literature at the same university and also Alternattiva Demokratika spokesperson on EU affairs, shows how little has changed in the past 150 years.
“The Vella Gera episode happened in 1860 in Malta when two youths were sentenced to three days’ jail and a fine of three pounds, together with the closure of their newspaper, in punishment for what they had written,” Cassola says about the obscenity case.
Little indeed has changed: Camilleri faces a possible prison sentence and fine if he is found guilty of the charges, which were brought by the police upon a report filed by university rector Juanito Camilleri, who is a telecommunications expert by profession.
The 1860 sentence brought about reactions from other newspapers, Cassola notes, “which were worried at the possibility of preventive censure” – much like the present-day reaction of many pundits who were taken aback by the action of the university and the police.
“For example, L’Ordine, of July 1860, whilst dissociating itself from the two, writes: ‘The impression created last week, from what happened in the Court of Magistrates, was indeed reasonable: two youngsters, accused by the police of having contributed to the publication of an obscene article in a newspaper called La Trombetta, were remanded to the Criminal Court, were on the verge of being either detained under arrest until final sentencing, or given bail. In defence of honest publishers against the unjust vexations of the law and tribunals, we cannot hide our shame at the fact that never, has the local press been in such miserable conditions as today, since the days the local press was freed from the shackles of censorship’.”
And it’s not just the Maltese press that has taken similar umbrage at the prosecution of Camilleri. BBC Radio 5 was discussing censorship around the world this week, and interviewed the 21-year-old history student. Journalist Rhod Sharp said that if a story like Camilleri’s had been published in other European countries it would have gone unnoticed but Malta was “different.”
Cassola, whose party has objected to what it said was a “medieval methodology” to threaten people with prison, said that politicians were being unjustly tough. “Such zealous politicians should set the example by acting tough against corrupt and unrepentant members of the judiciary or business tycoons who refuse to pay millions for dumping at sea – and not take it out against a 21-year-old editor of a university-based newspaper.”