28 Sep 2015 Blasphemy Laws
These are comments I had given to Maltatoday – 21st January 2015 – regarding vilification provisions in Criminal Code
As Malta’s Commissioner of Laws, the task of identifying and removing out-dated or otherwise troublesome legislation falls to lawyer and former MP Franco Debono.
However, he told MaltaToday that no discussion has to date taken place over whether to repeal or revise Articles 163-5.
“This is a sensitive subject to be handled with great care,” he commented. “In a world where religious dogmas are ever more being assailed by scientific enquiries and discoveries, indifference, the open-mindedness of spirituality, as well as the growing appreciation of religious tolerance – and considering that freedom of expression lies at the very foundations of Western society as we know it, which is thus by far the general rule – there is nothing wrong with having another look at our 1933 laws regarding blasphemy.”
But Debono argues that, “as the Pope has pointed out”, there are certain exceptional limitations to freedom of speech. “Any exceptional limitations to this fundamental right must always be extremely well founded and absolutely necessary to be justified.”
Debono desists from stating whether or not Malta’s ban of blasphemy is either ‘well-founded’ or ‘necessary’. But he admits that the law in its present form may be problematic.
“With regard to ‘Crimes against the Religious Sentiment; under our Criminal Code, one cannot fail to notice that the law distinguishes between the Catholic religion and ‘other cults’ as regards the applicable term of imprisonment for infringement. This should also be seen in the context of the urgent need to abolish criminal libel from our statute book (a call I have made in Parliament as far back as 2011 and even before), and one must always strive to strike a balance.”
Nonetheless, the Law Commissioner refrains from making a similar demand in the case of blasphemy laws. “While I consider the abolition of criminal libel as a very urgent matter, the resolution of these dilemmas concerning blasphemy arising from the intersection between law, morality and religion is always very sensitive and never easy.”
Instead, he argues that it is in religion’s own interest to become tolerant of criticism.
“One could argue that in the religious domain, freedom of expression should apply with even more rigour than in secular matters. No opportunity is more formidable for any religion to practise what it preaches about respect towards others, tolerance, compassion, loving kindness, and forgiveness, than when someone seeks to strongly disagree with it!”