Freedom of expression 'is not absolute'
The "studied" court judgment confirming the ban on the play Stitching highlighted the difficulty in striking a balance between artistic freedom and public morality, the Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Mario de Marco, said.
"I didn't read the script or watch the play, so I can't say whether I agree with the judgment or not," he said, when contacted for his reaction to the ruling.
However, he pointed out that Mr Justice Joseph Zammit Mc-Keon did not go into the merits of the law. He simply sought to establish whether the play impinged on public morality or not and decided it did.
"The judge starts from the premise that what offends one nation may not offend another and it is difficult to define public morality," Dr de Marco noted.
Asked about the judge's conclusion that if swearing was not allowed in public it should not be allowed on stage, Dr de Marco argued this was not the "thrust" of the judgment. He pointed out that films containing a lot of swearing were generally given an adult classification rather than have the swear words bleeped out, so swearing in a fictitious environment was usually accepted.
Asked whether he thought plays should be banned, Dr de Marco said he believed freedom of expression was sacrosanct but it was not an absolute right.
The discussion on how to regulate artistic expression was still ongoing, especially within the context of the draft cultural policy and one had to ask whether Malta should go for a self-regulating mechanism or an improved version of what there was today. Dr de Marco said a self-regulating mechanism could result in the police taking action after a play was staged where the same situation as in the case of Stitching would then arise and a court would be asked to decide on public morality.
On the other hand, the present system could be improved to include more active theatre practitioners or to ensure that the classification board can only censor plays after actually seeing them instead of basing its decisions on the script alone. The producers of Stitching had argued the play had to be watched to be understood but the judge based his judgment on the script, as the classification board had done.
"I do not want to see freedom of artistic expression unduly suppressed. But I don't think anyone is saying this freedom gives the right to offend public morality or decency," Dr de Marco said, urging both sides of the debate to respect each other's rights.
Labour MP, lawyer and anti-censorship campaigner, Owen Bonnici said the judge simply applied a law which both political parties agreed was archaic and should be updated.
He said he fully respected the judge and the court but he had hoped the judge would appeal for an improvement in the law.
"There must be something wrong if the UK removed theatre censorship 42 years ago and we still feel we have to apply it," Dr Bonnici said, adding that the Maltese were among the least Europeans that go to the theatre.
He stressed this was the first of three stages in the court process which included an appeal in the Maltese courts and appeal at a European level.
Asked about the judge's assertions about swearing in public, Dr Bonnici pointed out it would be insulting to limit the discussion on whether swearing should be allowed on stage. "What if I want to put up a play about what goes on during a football match in Ta' Qali?"