5 Aug 2010
An obscene attack on Maltese culture | Jennifer O'Mahony
guardian.co.uk Comment Thu 5 Aug 2010 07:00 BST
A student is on trial over a piece of fiction, and artworks are being banned. So why is the EU doing nothing about Malta?
What if there were an EU country where abortion, divorce, and blasphemy in public were all still illegal? Where freedom of expression was limited to saying nothing critical of the Catholic church, nothing that the government could call “obscene”, and nothing against the few noble families who all but controlled it? Surely, given Turkey's problems, Croatia's lack of membership, and Iceland's still pending application, such a place would be expelled? Welcome to Malta.
In the last year, the Maltese government has banned the play Stitching from being performed, has arrested and put students on trial for writing and publishing an “obscene” story, and has prevented the artist Alexander Stankovski from exhibiting paintings which contained nudity. The updated criminal code will make public obscenity or blasphemy in public punishable by up to a year in jail, even if the words or sentiments are part of a work of fiction, theatre, or art.
Artists are now beginning to take action. On 24 July, the Maltese Front Against Censorship held a “funeral march of art”. It lamented the death of Maltese cultural expression in a demonstration in the capital of Valletta, with protesters clad in black as the coffin symbolising their creativity passed slowly by.
The Nationalist government calls the recent draft national cultural policy, which aims to promote Maltese culture, a “milestone” for Malta, with the “foremost” principle being “the empowerment of people to participate actively in the realm of culture”. Clare Azzopardi and Immanuel Mifsud do not see it that way. The two poets and teachers are angry. Well-travelled, eloquent, and willing to speak out, Azzopardi and Mifsud are acutely aware of what the government is doing. It is the current trial of two students that they believe best symbolises Malta's censorship problem. Alex Vella Gera, the author of Li Tkisser Sewwi (Fix What You Break), and his publisher on a leftist student newspaper, Mark Camilleri, were arrested last December. Their trial is due to continue in October.
When I spoke to Azzopardi, she told me how the creative community had taken action, and how they had been ignored. “There were many authors who spoke up [about the students arrested], in December, and the NCP came out in February,” she said. “The minister said, 'Something has to be done with regards to censorship'. Now we've realised that they've actually just made it [the penalties] harsher. This was just a story about a man who was perverse, which means no one can write about paedophilia, a porn star, a perverse man or woman or whatever.”
Mifsud, the author of six volumes of poetry, attacked the University of Malta for turning in their own students in.
“We don't know who, but someone told the university rector about the story and he sent his people to collect all the copies. He then called the police, which he said was within his legal obligations. His argument was that women were offended and that the story incited hatred against women. Not one woman spoke against the piece but the police moved in and said it was obscene and that within their remit they could prosecute.”
The Maltese press covered the issue, but in a factual tone. A recent interview with another Maltese writer, Frans Sammut, in the Malta Independent, allowed him the space to say he agreed with the ban of the work. However, with editorials that celebrate the Pope's stance on paedophiles operating within the Catholic church, one cannot expect the media to help artists that write about blasphemy and their perceptions of the church's misogyny. Self-censorship is rife on an island where everyone knows everyone else, but general opinion seems to suggest that writers were simply not taken seriously enough before the events of last year to ever fear reproach for what they produced.
What is interesting is that all of these issues have been covered in some detail in the local and international press, but no one within the EU government is making any attempt to prevent the crackdown on free speech that is spreading through Maltese political discourse. Perhaps, as an island of 400,000, the people of Malta are too few in number to bother protecting? The EU intervenes in issues such as economic regulation, but not the suffocation of freedom of expression.
Mifsud is adamant that he will not stop writing in the way he has always done, but fears for his professional life. “It has to change. I hope none of us back out. We are in the limelight. The police are saying, 'Let's read Mifsud's book, he is known to write obscenities'. It is Orwellian, and it was completely unknown to us. Suddenly it's here. Five or six years after joining the EU this has happened. The irony of it.”