A very controversial topic in Malta, at this very moment, is freedom of expression. I am all out in favour of people expressing what they believe in, and that includes people with whom I totally disagree on what they have to say. However, quite frequently I’m asked: ‘Does this freedom include hate speech?’ Treating this issue is very delicate. People’s freedoms are extremely important but so is the protection of those to whom the speech is directed. Where should one draw the line?
Let’s start with what in my opinion should not even be considered as controversial – shocking and vulgar language. I find it completely ridiculous to censor something (for example the play ‘Stitching’ and ‘Realta’s newspaper) just because it contains parts or articles considered as vulgar and shocking. Who defines what terms fall into this category? Some board of whatever authority?
More controversial is offensive language. Here we are not talking about ‘nasty’ words, but words deliberately used to offend others on the basis of religion, race, sexual orientation and others. Should a Maltese Imam who compared homosexuals getting married to marrying cats and dogs be censored or face legal sanction? What about right wing extremists who call black people niggers? I know many will disagree with me on this, but I don’t believe these people should be censored or face criminal repercussions. Definitely they should be condemned, and if they aren’t it means we’re in trouble. The offended parties have the right to file libel. However they should have all the right to say it without fearing the authorities.
The next category is however different. I’m talking about what is termed as ‘fighting words’. These are used to overtly or subtly incite violence on the victims. The injured party is not just offended but threatened and put in danger. Had the Imam called for individuals or groups to harass homosexuals, or right if rightwing extremists to make a call to harass ‘niggers’, the story would have been very different.
An email that had been circulating a while ago shows a group of extremist Muslims in the UK calling for violence against a Danish cartoonist. In my opinion it is unacceptable to let these people protest and call for such action, even getting police protection for it. They are not ‘offending back’ the person who offended them. They are instigating violence towards him and his country. Though their demands are futile, intention is clear and in my opinion the protest should not only have been halted, but the ring leaders should have been filed criminal charges.
Right wing extremists sometimes also jump the line when it comes to freedom of speech. An example is the BNP who are not only allowed to voice their words, but two of them have been elected to the European Parliament. They don’t like a multicultural England, they deny the Holocaust, and even minimise what Hitler did: ‘Adolf just went a bit too far’. Disgusting as it is, I believe they have a right to say it. What they don’t have a right to is, for example, making an alliance with the Ku Klux Klan, an organisation responsible for thousands of deaths during the last hundred years, all based on racial prejudice. Asking these people their vote, telling them ‘they have the same objective but will have to use sweeter words’ is legitimising the Klan’s violence. On that basis, yes definitely the BNP should have faced criminal sanctions, even been prohibited from contesting elections.
Something that fascinates me is the comments sent daily to the online version of the Times of Malta. Some people repeatedly voice their opinion on African migrants, not only condemning illegal border crossing, but exposing their hatred towards these people. None of them is censored and as much as I despise (or sometimes laugh at) what they say I agree they should be allowed to voice their opinion. However occasionally they do cross the line. I remember a particular comment going something like this (referring to migrants in Britain and Malta): ‘The BNP will in the end take control because they have the support of the Army. Same should be done here’. The threat here is not so subtle. The author is definitely not talking about just the Army officials’ vote.
This topic is extremely delicate, and the line between what is acceptable or not is extremely thin. Thus I would like to make some things clear:
1) Though one may think in what s/he reads here and in most of the media that the issue of censorship is related mainly to race, religion and political correctness, this is not the case. These cases are the most controversial, thus newsworthy. In reality censorship is more often used in the form of trying to silence people like Mr Joe Falzon, MEPA’s auditor who want to expose serious illegalities at the expense of the Maltese taxpayer.
2) What I wrote here is my personal opinion. It does not necessarily reflect what Maltese or EU legislation states.
3) There are a lot of gray areas. For example what about psychological harassment? A recent case of a homosexual who had his house intruded by someone who sprayed the words ‘No Gays’ is not, in my opinion just a case of vandalism and trespassing but a hate crime. There was a deliberate (and successful) attempt at causing fear in the victim, even if there was no overt reference to violence. Once again, the million dollar question is, ‘Where does one cross the line?’