Home Affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici has come out guns blazing in defence of the recent amendments to Article 208 of the Criminal Code, lambasted by the Front Against Censorship for creating a 'culture of terror' aimed at intimidating authors and artists from portraying sexual themes in their work.
His argument? That these amendments, which came into effect on Friday, were "intended to protect children from sexual exploitation, pornography and grooming on the internet with the intent of engaging them in sexual acts and paedophilia.'
"The fact that The Front Against Censorship is opposing such legal provisions is a clear indication that the Front has either failed to understand the aim of these amendments or is evidence of the fact that the Front does not endorse the same values the people of this country have consistently upheld," he said.
Well, Carm Mifsud Bonnici is simply playing with words.
Fact of the matter is that Article 208 is the exact same article of law currently being cited against both editor Mark Camilleri and author Alex Vella Gera for the publication of Li Tkisser Sewwi in the eighth edition of campus newspaper Ir-Realta'.
I quote from a newspaper report dated Wednesday, 16 June 2010:
"Mr Vella Gera pleaded not guilty to breaching article 208 of the Criminal Code, which deals with the distribution of pornographic or obscene material, among others. If convicted he could be jailed for up to six months or fined up to €465.87."
With the new amendments, the stipulated fines have been increased almost sixfold to €3,000. The prison sentence for the same offence has been doubled to one year.
What Mifsud Bonnici also fails to mention is that while "the definition of the possession of pornographic material depicting minors had been extended to the acquisition through information and communication technology", it was in no way amended with regard to its applicability to perceived 'obscenity' in literature or art.
The new amendments - which incidentally were unanimously approved by Parliament, with the full support of the 'progressive' Labour Party - may therefore be used in future to prosecute writers, artists and film makers on the basis of an entirely subjective interpretation of their work... as indeed is happening even as I write.
Furthermore, Mifsud Bonnici appears to be unaware that there is a world of difference between the intention behind a law or legal amendment, and its subsequent application by the police and law courts: both of which are (theoretically, at any rate) independent of government.
It is for this reason that lawmakers have to be particularly attentive to the precise wording of the laws they make... something I am afraid I just can't say for the present legislature, which is proving to be singularly cavalier and irresponsible in its entire approach to legislation.
Even if we accept Mifsud Bonnici's lame defence of the recent amendments, I for one do not for a second believe his claim that the laws were intended only to protect minors from exploitation. Recent history suggests the very opposite - in the past two years alone, various articles of law have been invoked to censor plays and art exhibitions, to prosecute writers and editors, to press charges against people for dressing up in fancy dress costumes at a Carnival... while at the same time, we have witnessed an explosion of unlicensed lap-dancing clubs in Paceville and elsewhere, and the government has to date stolidly refused to amend the relevant codes of law to at least regularise this dubious industry.
Malta has meanwhile risen to become a major hub for international online billing agencies, some of which openly advertise internet porn sites among their clients. And yet there has not been a single prosecution of anyone for 'distribution of pornographic or obscene material', despite the fact that this a precise definition of the internet porn industry as a whole.
The Front Against Censorship is absolutely right to be vigilant. We are witnessing a steady emergence of a culture of moral bullying, which now uses the global fight against child pornography as just another weapon in its ongoing war on freedom of expression. Meanwhile, no action whatsoever is taken against real internet pornography, in which the present government has a declared stake running into millions of euros.
Having said that, there is at least one part of Mifsud Bonnici's statement with which I wholeheartedly agree: "the Front does not endorse the same values the people of this country have consistently upheld".
The only values this country has ever upheld are those of avarice and hypocrisy. I can't talk on behalf of the Front Against Censorship, but speaking entirely for myself, I certainly do not endorse either.