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From the Inquisitor’s flames to university skips

James Debono explores the history of censorship in Malta: from book burning by 17th Century Inquisitors, to the dumping of a newspaper by the university beadle in 2009

On 5 May 1609, Inquisitor Evangelista Carbonese ordered the public prosecutor of the Holy Office to burn 53 books in the Main Square of Vittoriosa “in the presence of a multitude of people”.
This was the Catholic Church’s reaction to Gutenburg’s printing press, which facilated the dissemination of heresy and knowledge. The Index of Prohibited Books, first issued in 1559 by Pope Paul IV, was locally enforced by the Inquisition. 4,000 writers and works were placed on the Roman Index from the mid-sixteenth century to the end of the eighteenth.
In Witchcraft, Sorcery and the Inquisition, historian Carmel Cassar notes that in 1577 Inquisitor Raynaldo Corso was congratulated by the General Inquisitor in Rome for having burned a number of books: which included writings by Erasmus and a copy of the Decameron by Boccaccio.
It was not until British times that Ordinance number IV of 1839, enacted by the Governor of Malta, made book and press censorship formally illegal despite the protests of the Church hierarchy. But newspapers and books could still be banned for moral and political reasons.

The Sedition Trials
On 18 March 1933 the police raided the homes of six Labour activists to search for seditious literature. Guze Orlando, Wigi Azzopardi, Karmnu Carabott, Ganni Valvo, Salvu Pulis u Joseph Storace were arrested, prosecuted and condemned for possessing “seditious literature”. Ironically the seditious works included works by Bernard Shaw and Fabian society founder Sidney Webb; both of which were perfectly legal in the United Kingdom. Following an outcry in the UK itself, the governor pardoned the six socialist activists.

Censorship turns Anthony Burgess anti-Maltese
Soon after Anthony Burgess achieved notoriety with his A Clockwork Orange, British novelist moved to Malta and settled down in Lija with his Italian wife. According to veteran journalist Godfrey Grima, Burgess “became rabidly anti-Maltese” after a book he had to review was withheld by the censor. Burgess’ Earthly Powers, partly set in Malta, expresses in part his disillusionment with the local authorities.
In 1968, following the unexpected success of ‘The Naked Ape’, anthropologist Desmond Morris moved to Malta to avoid a hefty tax bill; only to find out that his works were still censored here.

Three ‘second kisse’
Repressive systems of censorship in the 1950s and 1960s often verged on to the ridiculous, recalls veteran film critic Eric German.
“They used to actually time a kissing scene with a stopwatch, and if it lasted more than two or three seconds they would just cut it,” he said. “So a scene such as the one in Pillow Talk, with Rock Hudson and Doris Day, where they kiss for more than three seconds, was cut abruptly. Since at the time the MUFC didn’t have an editing machine, you would abruptly see the couple at opposite ends of the screen as if lightning struck and separated them by the mighty hand of God”.
Censorship was relaxed following the election of a Labour government in 1971, to the extent that cinema showing Italian B movies starring Edwidge Fenech and Pierino were screened in small cinemas like the ABC in Floriana, while the screening of hard core pornography was “tolerated” in the City Lights in Valletta.
It was only in August 2009 after 25 years of tolerance, that 67-year-old Alex Baldacchino was charged with screening pornographic films at City Lights. Baldacchino told MaltaToday he cannot explain how the police has only acted against him now, decades since the well-known cinema has been operating.
“Adult content has become common in this day and age,” Baldacchino said. “You will find DVDs for sale at the flea market, or for free on internet. So I took it for granted that, once we’re living in 2009, there’s nothing wrong with pornography.”

Political censorship
Despite a greater moral liberalism under Mintoff’s government, the practice of censorship was gradually taken to a more political level. In 1986 Judge Joseph A. Filletti ruled that the then Telemalta Corporation chairman Maurice Mifsud Bonnici, and the head of Xandir Malta Toni Pellegrini, were discriminating against then opposition leader Eddie Fenech Adami by censoring his name on the national television station. In-Nazzjon Taghna was also forced to axe ‘Nazzjon’ from its name, after legislation ostensibly aimed at safeguarding .
In 1982 foreign journalists and political activists were subject to the Foreign Interference Act. Roberto Formigoni and Massimo Gorla, two Italian politicians representing the Democrazia Cristiana, were arrested for speaking at Nationalist Party rallies.

Last Temptation and the Joy of Sex
Following the introduction of pluralism, political censorship became a thing of the past but sex and religion still fell under the censors’ scrutiny.
In October 1989 the Board of Film Censors withheld Martin Scorsese’s controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ from viewing in local cinemas. The film was based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ classic novel, The Last Temptation, which had earned the rebuke of both of the Vatican and the Greek Orthodox church.
A video version of the film, which was on sale at Il-Monti open air market in Valletta, was also withdrawn from sale on public orders.
In the same year a television spot by the Department of Health Education Unit advocating the use of condoms in a campaign against AIDS was censored on Xandir Malta.
In 1992. Dr Alex Comfort’s The New Joy of Sex was withheld by the Postmaster General and the Customs for being too “explicit.”

Basic Instinct
Basic Instinct was also subjected to censorship in 1993 when, after weeks showing at the cinema, the censorship board found the video to be pornographic and obscene and ruled that it could not be rented from video stores. Exotique, a major video rental company, had called the decision “hypocritical” and accused the board of discrimination against its clients for prohibiting them from renting a film that had been viewed in public uncensored.
In 1993, KullHadd reported that then Education Minister Ugo Mifsud Bonnici had ordered the removal of a number of books from the Beltissebh Public Library, including Jesus the Man by Ian Wilson, A Social History of Swearing, and a book on demonology.
But censorship was not just the prerogative of the State: even the private sector willfully collaborated. Melita Cable censored the nightly adult show Midnight Club that was being broadcast in 1994 on Telepiu Due, because it was deemed to be pornographic.
Melita subscribers who paid to see the station could not watch the show between midnight and 3am.

The Duchess of Malfi
In February 1996, John Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi was censored by the Ministry of the Arts which had ordered the director to cut a scene where the Duchess, about to be unjustly executed, kicks a small crucifix across the stage. The play was performed by British theatre group Cheek by Jowl at the Manoel Theatre, who were requested to remove the “offending” scene from their last two shows. When they refused, the request became an order and blasphemy laws were quoted.
The following year the Manoel Theatre saw another act of censorship involving the Bible. The Reduced Shakespeare Company was banned by the censorship board from performing their satirical masterpiece, The Bible – The Complete Word of God, on the grounds that “the play would have offended our religious sentiments”.
The company had brought the house down with their presentation of The Complete Works of Shakespeare the previous year. The chairman of the censorship board, Anthony Muscat, said that the first part of the play was “delightful and immensely enjoyable,” and found no objection; but the part dealing with the New Testament was a travesty, especially where the Last Supper and the Crucifixion were portrayed.
“I also took into consideration the fact that the play was going to be staged during Lent; it would have offended even more,” Muscat said.

Playboy enters Malta
Playboy magazine was allowed to go on sale for the first time in Malta in January 2001 – a decision hailed by The Sunday Times in the UK, which described Malta as a “strongly Roman Catholic country”, where the porn magazine went on sale 47 years after it was first published. The Observer reported the move in a similar way, but also stressed that the authorities would still be vetting each issue. When the authorities decided to allow the December issue of Playboy into Malta, it was made clear that all forthcoming editions would still be censored on their individual content.

Beeps on Teletubi
Teletubi –a satirical programme One TV was pulled off the air in 2008 after the station decided it could no longer afford the constant stream of Broadcasting Authority (BA) fines. The producers were fined for failing to properly ‘beep out’ entire words, so that the initial letter could still be made out. One TV received a fine of over €1,000 for a single episode.

A Stitching in Time
Andrew Nielsen’s awrad-winning drama Stitching was banned by the censorship board, chaired by Therese Friggieri, on the grounds that it contains blasphemy against the State religion, contempt for the victims of Auschwitz and references to the abduction, sexual assault and murder of children.
Production company Unifaun has taken the government to court over the ban, citing the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling in the Handyman case that freedom of expression is “applicable not only to ‘information and ideas’ that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the state or any sector of the population.”
The ban has also attracted international criticism, with The Guardian’s theatre correspondent Andrew Haydon taking the Maltese government to task for operating theatrical censorship, arguing that “it is unacceptable that the police force of a European democracy in the 21st century has the power to issue notices ordering that a play is not performed.”
A MaltaToday survey showed that 51.1% of the Maltese oppose the ban on Anthony Nielson’s play Stitching imposed by the censorship board, with a majority stating they want the censorship board stripped of its power to determine what adults can watch.
Younger people in the 18-34 age group are the most opposed to censorship, with 59% opposing the ban on Stitching, and 61% opposing the censorship’s board power to curtail artistic freedom.
On the other hand, older people support both the banning of Stitching (48.1%) and the censorship board’s power to ban artistic productions in general (56.3%).
Curiously more respondents opposed the specific ban on Stitching (51.1%) than the censorship board’s power to ban artistic productions (48.1%).

Cover up those mannequins
Only last month, two policemen walked into the DNA Emporium outlet in Eucharistic Congress Road, Mosta, and instructed the owners to dress up two mannequins which carried a symbolic message against human trafficking and sexual slavery.
Yet the police instructed the owners to cover up the mannequins after they said they had received a report from “someone influential” that the models were too explicit.

A beadle’s job
And finally last week the rector’s beadle was seen dumping piles of newspaper which were placed in the university’s hallway to be taken for free. Ironically the latest act of censorship – the ban on left wing publication Ir-Realta – took place at university: a community supposedly dedicated to intellectual freedom and information technology which has rendered censorship redundant.
The offending piece was a literary short story by Alex Vella Gera, a timid work compared to many of the classics in the university’s own library which lends copies of the Marquis de Sade’s Justine the Misfortunes of Virtue – which includes graphic descriptions of sexual torture, Nabokov’s Lolita which documents a 57-year-old’s paedophiliac relation with a girl aged 12, and Charles Bukowski expletive-replete Ham on Rye.



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