The recent announcement that the government planned to do away with a number of articles in the law to bring it in line with modern standards gave rise to some criticism, but perhaps the most vociferous complaints were aimed at the removal of articles 163 and 164 from the criminal code.
These articles, broadly, threaten anyone who “vilifies” the Catholic religion, or any person or object related to it, with up to six months in jail, while a shorter sentence protects other “cults”, as the law derisively calls every other religion and church on the planet.
Religion is held dear by many of course, but then so are other things. There are some who feel as strongly about a political party or ideology as someone else feels about religion, yet we don’t punish those who vilify socialism or capitalism, and we strongly denounce those countries that still punish those individuals who dare to speak up against the regime.
History shows us that there is much to criticise in both religion and political dictatorships. In fact, it is when they are protected from criticism that they commit some of their worst atrocities. Whether it is ISIS with their heinous acts, or the Catholic Church’s sinister teachings against the use of condoms in areas where one in four people is HIV-positive, these should be subject to the same criticism that we can legally level against anything else.The imposition of religion belongs either to the past or to some despotic regime.
Elsewhere, we have learned the value of rights, such as the right to freedom of belief and freedom of expression. These articles in our law are a clear restriction on freedom of expression.
Of course, freedom of expression is not without limits, but is it justified in this case? “What about people’s right not to be offended?”, some might ask.
Sometimes, when a privilege has been around for a long time, its removal can seem to be an attack on one’s rights. It may therefore come as a surprise to many that there is no right not to be offended.
English Philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty that the only reason that someone’s rights should be abridged is to prevent harm to others – the “harm principle”. “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind,” he says.
"The imposition of religion belongs either to the past or to some despotic regime"
In an important case of the European Court of Human Rights in 1976 (Handyside vs the UK), the court declared that “Freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of [a democratic] society, one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of every man… it 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.”
Here it is worth pointing out the difference between something that vilifies an idea or object, and something that vilifies people – individually or as a group. In Malta we have, and will still have, laws that protect people against various verbal offences.
These laws include those against slander, laws prohibiting incitement to violence, and the requirement to speak truthfully on the witness stand – but these are always about protecting people, not their beliefs. Not all ideas or beliefs are automatically deserving of respect.
If someone started insisting that the world is flat, or that God lives on Mount Olympus and casts lightning bolts as a weapon, I would not respect those beliefs. I’d probably ridicule them.
So why should I be prevented by law from ridiculing the idea that every human and animal in the world today came from a large boat while God was drowning all the other living beings a few thousand years ago? There are people who believe this story quite literally, and can get very agitated when other people dismiss it.
What if I consider this action, whether real or not, to be immoral, and therefore the god described in the Bible to be evil? Nothing else is thus protected. One of our laws prohibits the vilification of the flag and emblem of Malta, but an infringement of this would be considered an offence and liable only to a fine. There is no reason why the vilification of religion should be a crime punishable by prison.
The world was rightly shocked when atheist blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to a thousand lashes and a long prison sentence by Saudi Arabia for “insulting Islam”, but we cannot easily condemn this repressive regime when our own laws have similar articles, although the penalty is not as harsh. We have to put our own house in order first. These articles must go.
Ramon Casha is chairman of the Malta Humanist Association.