MHA concern about compromises on vilification law removal

The following letter was sent to all members of parliament.

The Malta Humanist Association is concerned about the apparent direction being taken in the efforts to repeal Malta’s vilification of religion law, including compromises that are being contemplated.

Freedom of Expression is one of the fundamental rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and while it is not without limitations, these limitations should be very few and included only when absolutely necessary. Examples include the requirement to say the truth on the witness stand, and the prohibition of filing false police reports. These are based on the principle of harm, as described by John Stuart Mill in his 1859 philosophical work “On Liberty”. People should be protected from harm, not ideas or beliefs.

The world was rightly shocked at the treatment of people like Raif Badawi, sentenced to ten years of jail, a thousand lashes and a large fine by Saudi Arabia for “insulting Islam”. Another case has just happened in Kuwait, where Professor of Philosophy Sheikha al-Jassem has been charged with the same crime after a  complainant said he had been psychologically damaged by her remarks that the constitution is above the Qu'ran.

The main difference between Malta’s situation and that of Saudi Arabia is the severity of the sentence and the frequency with which the law is applied, but the principle in both cases remains the same - that there is a set of beliefs that is shielded from criticism, or anything that can be arbitrarily declared to be “offensive”. In the past, in Malta, this law has been used to try to stifle literary expression and prosecute people dressing in costumes in carnival. Even when the accused were liberated, the threat of this law hanging over people’s heads serves to stifle freedom of expression.

In the ECHR case of Handyside vs the UK in 1972, the court delivered the famous declaration that “Freedom of expression… is applicable not only to information or ideas that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population”.

Some are recommending a compromise by opening up freedom of expression only to arts and artists. This creates several new problems, since it requires an authority on what is art, or who is an artist. Courts will have to decide whether an individual is an artist, or whether an expressed opinion qualifies as art, thus creating a new privileged class whose rights are greater than the rest of the population.

It has been mentioned that proposed changes would extend this anti-discrimination protection to atheism. Speaking on behalf of the Malta Humanist Association, we have never requested nor do we desire any similar protection for Humanism. Any belief system should be open to criticism as much as a political stance or ideology: If it stands up to criticism it does not need protection. If it cannot stand up to criticism, then it does not deserve it.

The Malta Humanist Association encourages our representatives to repeal articles 163 and 164 in their entirety. Their presence in our law provides no benefit and actually harms society.

Ramon Casha
Chairman, Malta Humanist Association