A (Very) Brief Legal History of Artistic Censorship in Malta: With special emphasis on the early 20th Century up to the 1970s

From the research conducted it appears that Maltese jurisprudence on the matter of obscene publications (artistic or literary publications in particular) is very scarce. This could be due, in part, to the rigorous censorial activities of the postal censors and customs officers which had the power to examine and withhold books and other imported materials deemed to be objectionable and prohibited by the laws of Malta.

For instance, one could point to Article 24 of the Post Office law (1924) which stated:

‘No person shall send by post any indecent or obscene print, picture, pictograph, lithograph, engraving, book, card, or any other indecent, obscene or impious article, or any postal article having thereon or on the cover thereof, any words, marks or designs of an indecent, obscene, seditious, scurrilous, threatening, or grossly offensive character...’
Article 60 (b) of the Customs Ordinance (1909) was also cited as grounds for restricting imported books. It established as an offence ‘any prohibited goods whatsoever which are imported or brought into any part of Malta’.

With regards to literature in particular, it is suggested by some that such officers went so far as to base their decisions on the infamous Index Librorum Prohibitorum. This was especially prevalent up to the 1960s which was characterised by religious dogma and repressive spiritual sanctions by the local Curia during the turbulent political history of that period in Malta.  

Such facts can be attested by various articles and letters of complaint published in local newspapers. In 1964 alone, 1014 books and 557 other publications were withheld by the Postal and Printed Matter Board of Censors. Several classics such as Fanny Hill by John Cleland, Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence and La Romana by Alberto Moravia where nowhere to be seen on the Maltese book-shelves, including works by famous writers and thinkers such as Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Havelock Ellis. Moreover, no appeal to the ordinary courts was permissible from the final decisions of the Customs Printed Matter Appeals Board.

Censorship was also prevalent in film and stage productions. In one letter to the editor of the Times of Malta, Dr. Benny Camilleri laments that ‘[t]he censors have been so severe to most of the good films being produced today that we are in the position of having to go to London or Rome in order to be able to see a good film.’ In 1964, Lino Cassar writes in Il-Helsien, that the censors withheld 15 films and made cuts to another 74. In 1969, 24 films were banned and another 40 in 1970. In 1963 the theatre censors banned the plays Sei Personaggi in Cerca d’Autore and L’Uomo, La Bestia e La Virtu by Luigi Pirandello leading various commentators to ask ‘[h]ow long are we going to suffer at the hands of these people who cannot tell the difference between pornography and art?’ 

So ingrained and deeply rooted was the state of censorship that a certain ‘A.A.M’ writing to the Sunday Times of Malta proclaimed that ‘[w]e have come to accept the censor as an institution that constitutes an intimate part of the normal State machinery. We have conjectured, accepted and cited repeatedly “valid reasons” to institute and expand the censor’s ramifications’. 

In its few judgments on the subject, the influence of the court also had a role to play. In Il-Pulizija vs Domenico Catalogna (Court of Criminal Appeal (Inferior), 30 January 1954 (Vol XXXVIII (1954), Part 4, Page 798)),  for instance, the defendant was convicted for an offence to public morals for inadvertently showing nudist paintings to his friends in public. In its judgment the Court of Criminal Appeal quoted the Italian jurist Cocurullo who argued that art should have no business in displaying the vice and depravity found in nature and society; it should not lift that veil. In the slighlty more bizarre judgment of Il-Pulizija vs Anthony Deguara (Court of Criminal Appeal (Inferior), 26 November 1960), the accused was convicted for an offense to public morals for playing the song ‘Nuda’ by Domenico Modugno on a jukebox in a cafeteria in Sliema. In its judgment the court of criminal appeal held that the words ‘jew b’xi mod ieħor mhux imsemmi band’oħra f’dan il-Kodiċi, joffendi l-morali, l-imġieba xierqa, jew id-diċenza’ (in what was then Article 352(z) of the Criminal Code) was comprehensive enough to proscribe any behaviour which in some way offends morals and concluded that the fact that such a song was played on a jukebox in a public place undoubtedly offends public morals.

In light of these historical realities, Maltese artists and writers rarely dared to challenge the status-quo. Art, for the most part, had to be timid, aesthetically pleasing and inoffensive to pass the censor’s test. Anything sexual was always taboo. The fear of criminal punishment or the censor’s ban and the lack of appeal from decisions of the censors, whilst unfortunate in themselves, necessarily lead to a scarcity of local jurisprudence on this matter.  

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