The Juke of Malta? Reform Promised, Yet Censorship Lingers

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In January, Malta’s government announced it would be reforming its long and oft-criticized censorship of the arts. But as of July, the effort seems to have stalled in the hall of politics. Parliament debated the bill Tuesday, with no outcome reported as of press time Thursday.

At year’s beginning, Tourism and Culture Minister Mario de Marco announced proposed legislation which would free up suppression of arts expression, primarily in theatre and films.

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The new legislation “deals with the much-awaited changes in censorship of dramatic and other theatrical performances,” according toThe Times of Malta. “Censorship would be completely eliminated as producers and artists should themselves classify their own production and work.”

The proposal would see stage and cinema regulation pass from the police to the Malta Council for the Arts. Legislation would also scrap the Film and Stage Classification Board and set up two new panels: a Theatre Guidance Board and a Film Age Classification Board.

The new stage board would “also receive and discuss complaints if patrons feel that a production does not match the rating given to it,” the Malta newspaper said. “Should the board uphold the request, the board will recommend a new rating to the producer and he will be required to advertise it along with his own rating so that the people can be duly informed of what the board considers to be an appropriate rating.”

Earlier this week, theatre producer Adrian Buckle expressed disappointment at the reform’s delay. Buckle currently is challenging in court the censorship of the contro¬≠versial play “Stitching.”

“I understand Parliament has been through mayhem during the last few weeks and it is not completely the government’s fault that such legislation has not yet passed,” Buckle told Malta’s Times, “but I suspect there is a certain amount of procrastination when it comes to this law.”

Buckle complained that the proposed reforms would expand artistic freedom and expression, but the House Business Committee was ignoring its importance.

In Tuesday’s debate, Minister de Marco told Parliament that a modern society recognizes the role of the artist, the actor and the filmmaker, adding that the arts provoke intellectual debates. He called the reforms positive and constructive, and that, rather than prohibiting expression, it would, according to the Times, “provide adequate standards that reflected a mature society.”

The website Censor Fortress dates Malta’s censorship efforts back to 1559 when “Pope Paul IV issued the index of 550 censored authors and other individual titles. The local inquisitors were so eager to implement the index that instantly the burning of these books commenced in no time. The book censorship was held in the Grand Harbour as it was the only point of entry to the Island Fortress. Some names attached to the index were Aretino, Machiavelli, Boccaccio and Rabelais.”

By the 1990s, the website notes, “with the introduction of pluralism in broadcasting, political censorship seems to have become a thing of the past, and sex and religion have once again fallen under the censors’ scissors.”

Malta joined the European Union in May 2004 as its smallest state. That seems to have helped lead to easing of censorship, with the admission of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ” that same year. In 2008, the Maltese play ‘Sulari fuq Strata‘ was opened to performances at the Maonel Theatre after 28 years of being banned.

But the following year, “Anthony Neilsen‘s play ‘Stitching’ was banned by the now Classification board of Stage and Film to be performed by local Theatre Production Company Unifaun. Unifaun takes the board to courts as the decision was deemed unfair. This sparked an uproar with the Maltese and overseas Theatre critics.”

In 2010, the court ruled in favor of the board, banning “Stitching,” which producer Buckle wants to bring to the stage. Two months after the banning, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival, age classified “Stitching” 14+.