A (Very) Brief Legal History of Artistic Censorship in Malta (2): The Legal Changes of the 70's

In the period beginning from 1970 onwards the silent protest against artistic censorship and the "brute dogma" that characterized the censorship regime continued; for the most part as a public outcry on the press. Whether this could be construed as Malta's mild and belated "1968" moment is a matter for debate best left to qualified historians, sociologists and philosophers. Dr. Paul Xuereb, Librarian of the (Royal) University of Malta at the time, wrote a letter to the Sunday Times of Malta ('Censorship Discontent' - published 15 November 1970) which captures this moment. He states:

'Recent correspondence in this and in other papers is evidence of a widening discontent with our literary and screen censorship. Though there are others who react to any mention of censorship reform by predicting an era of widespread depravity and debauchery in the country, it cannot fail to puzzle me why our Government continues to adopt a phlegmatic attitude to the sensible and far from radical proposals on the subject that have already been made to it'. 

The same lamentations were made in the context of theatre and (especially) film censorship on which hundreds of articles and letters of protest were published in the local press. They were not wholly in vain. In 1972 the newly elected Labour government ushered in some timid reforms concerning stage and film censorship which mainly consisted in a reconstitution of the board of censors. The aim of the reforms was to replace a pure moralist censorship regime with a balanced and more ‘mature censorship’.

On the 21st of March 1972 l-orizzont’s editorial reported a change in the composition of the censorship board. It stated that the new stage and film censorship board was composed of persons who had publically criticized the archaic censorship regime (“mill-ħafna anzjani li kien hemm fil-bord l-antik ma baqax wieħed, u ħafna minn dawk li kienu jikkritikaw saru ċensuri”). It further stated that the new board was now composed of journalists, industrialists, a priest, a trade unionist and a famous author.  L-orizzont also claimed that whilst it expected the new censors to take Malta out of the Dark Ages they should not forget that Malta is a Catholic nation which has no need of those ‘excesses’ found in Scandinavian nations (e.g. Denmark had formally decriminalised adult pornography, even the ‘hardcore’ species, in 1969; the first Western democratic nation to ever do so).  

Further changes occurred in 1975. One of the more notable amendments was the abolishment of the postal censorship regime which (as stated in my previous post) was vested with a carte blanche to withhold any books it found objectionable. The new Postal Services Act 1975 (introduced by Act XXXV of 1975) seemingly replaced the former Post Office Act. Whilst the new Act still allowed (and still allows) for the sifting of imported postal material (other than letters) in terms of the customs law (see Article 35 of the Postal Services Act), it makes no mention of nebulous concepts such as morality and impiety. Nor is there any mention of ‘Postal and Customs Printed Matter’ review boards.  

However, the Customs Ordinance still vests (to this very day) the Commissioner for Revenue (not sure if this office was previously termed ‘Comptroller of Customs’)  with a general power to inspect and destroy imported material upon mere suspicion that it is pornographic. This is established in Article 82 of the Customs Ordinance which seems to be completely outdated (still makes reference to the defunct Post Office act) if not unconstitutional and contrary to EU rules on free movement of goods. Whether this law is enforced is another matter. Perhaps some politicians or journalists that may read this piece should inquire. 

A second notable change was the introduction, also in 1975 (by Act XXVII of 1975), of what is now Article 208 of the Criminal Code which criminalizes the manufacture, distribution, etc., of obscene and pornographic material. Legal Notice 80 of 1975 also introduced the Pornography and Obscenity Regulations which defined the meaning of ‘obscene’ and ‘pornographic’ in Article 3 thereof as an article (any object containing or embodying any matter to be read, looked at or heard) which has, as its dominant characteristic, ‘the exploitation of, or undue emphasis on, sex, or any one of the following subjects, namely, crime, horror, cruelty and violence’. It is interesting to note that the main source of inspiration for this particular definition was neither the English nor the Italian obscenity law but the Australian and Canadian laws. The same regulations also introduced the so-called ‘public good defence’ or ‘defence of artistic merit’ which absolve works that serve the public good on the ground that they are in the interests of science, literature, art or learning.

Taken together these new reforms suggest that the legislator’s intention was not to absolve the arts from any scrutiny whatsoever but, rather, to replace the archaic and arbitrary system of a priori censorship (in the context of printed matter) with the fundamental liberty to publish and be damned. As a corollary to this legislative shift, the matter of whether an artistic work was to be deemed 'pornographic or obscene' was a matter for the court, and not some unknown body of censors, to decide. 

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