As Parliament debates Bill 113, the removal of the crime of vilification of religion has become the object of heated debate. Several interventions have been made in the House, most notably by Claudette Buttigieg and Jason Azzopardi from Opposition benches and by Godfrey Farrugia from the government’s side.
What is most disappointing is the lack of logic behind the statements being made.
Buttigieg stated that vilification of religion should only be allowed for artistic purposes. The immediate consequence of this is that artists should be allowed to vilify religion while all other citizens should not. Why this should be the case is not clear to me, besides rendering the law very clumsy to apply in that the court would have to decide what is art and what is not each time.
Azzopardi went further and called the removal of this crime “the most dangerous decision yet” taken by this government. Subsequently, he made a somewhat odd use of a number of Charlie Hebdo magazines to make a point about the dangers inherent in allowing the vilification of religion.
Despite the fanfare, no censorship reform has taken place so far
He is essentially making the stunning claim that society should capitulate in front of religious terrorism by curtailing freedom of speech. Terrorism, thus, becomes a legitimate means to reach one’s nefarious ends.
Farrugia asked whether the removal of the crime of vilification of religion is intended to lead to the removal of the Catholic faith as the official religion of Malta. These two issues are completely unrelated because what is being removed here is the repressive criminal apparatus which prohibits subjecting religious systems of belief to ridicule or disparagement.
Indeed, Farrugia also argued about a need to protect society from “an exaggerated form of libertarianism”. Surely he understands that, in a democratic society, advocating incarceration to grant religion an immunity not afforded to any other conviction is pure extremism.
As Whip of the Labour Party, Farrugia needs no reminding that the 2013 Labour manifesto promised more liberty in place of censorship as well as a greater separation of Church and State.
One finds it hard to understand why the Whip himself is creating obstacles for the passage of this Bill and why, after three years of this government, censorship reform is being continuously postponed by delaying discussion of this Bill.
May I remind readers that, despite the fanfare, no censorship reform has taken place so far and that this Bill will only go half way in addressing this situation because the Press Act needs to be amended as well.
This state of affairs is becoming increasingly frustrating to many liberal citizens. One hopes the climate of indecision brought about by the Panama Papers affair is not leading some to vacillate on this issue. I urge the progressive and reform-minded elements in the House of Representatives to assert themselves and put this issue back on the parliamentary agenda so that this oppressive bastion of religious privilege and conservativism can be overcome once and for all.
Ingram Bondin is a Front Against Censorship activist.
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