Plans for a reform of the 1930s blasphemy laws will be finalised by the end of the month, The Sunday Times of Malta has learnt
A team of legal experts had been commissioned to draft a set of proposals to update the laws, Justice Ministry sources have confirmed. The proposals are in the closing stages and will be handed over to Justice Minister Owen Bonnici for consideration in the coming days. The minister said he had no comment to make for the time being.
The review had formed part of the government’s list of electoral pledges and comes at a time when the international community is also debating the issue.
The question of whether or not to allow ridicule of religious icons has dominated the headlines ever since the Charlie Hebdo attacks on January 7.
The Maltese government expressed its strong condemnation of the attack and solidarity with the satirical magazine, whose contentious cartoon, depicting the prophet Muhammed, had sparked the incidents.
However, Malta still has a blasphemy law, officially known as the offence of Vilification of the Roman Catholic Apostolic Religion. It forms part of the list of offences known as crimes against the religious sentiment, which was last updated back in 1933. The law makes it a criminal offence to “publicly vilify” the Roman Catholic Church, which it refers to as “the religion of Malta”, a provision that carries a maximum penalty of six months imprisonment. A subsidiary piece of legislation also extends the crime to other religions, which it refers to as “any cult tolerated by law”. Interestingly, however, in the eyes of the law it is only half as bad to offend other religions, as the penalty for this offence is three months imprisonment rather than six.
The reform was first mentioned by former culture parliamentary secretary José Herrera back in 2013. He had argued that theatrical and artistic performances should be exempt from blasphemy laws, as these may impinge on artistic expression.
The amendments were necessary, he had said, because currently the police could impede any performance deemed to be in breach of the Criminal Code.
Contacted for his reaction to the upcoming review, Dr Herrera said he was all for removing as much censorship as possible.
“People have a right to express themselves however they like in a modern world. Our policies are liberal, moderate, but liberal. We want to give space, especially in the arts world, so that people won’t feel restrained by taboos,” he said.