Putting a muzzle on artists

An edited version of this post appeared on www.timesofmalta.com.

About a month ago, a number of DJs who were scheduled to play during the Earth Garden festival were stopped from doing so in a move that was more reminiscent of North Korean tactics than the European democracy we so love to shout about when it suits us.

The reason? Some minor misdemeanor (presumably possession, although it has not been specified) on their police record. You’d think genocide or a terror attack was on the cards judging by the way these DJs were muzzled unceremoniously.

Fast-forward some weeks and – despite a promise by the authorities to address the situation – it is already happening again, this time at the Sliema Street Arts Festival, which is taking place in July.

All artists on the line up are already being asked to present their ID card for vetting by the police.

The practice of censoring (I don’t know what else to call it) artists whose criminal record is tainted has been happening for years. It was made ‘legal’ (and I use the half-quotes advisedly) in Malta by a legal notice called the Maintenance of Good Order in Places of Entertainment back around 1999, if memory and the gods of Google serve me right.

A quick look at this legal notice reveals an amusingly archaic and mediaeval approach to arts and entertainment on this haven of 21st-century tourism that we are supposed to be building. Reading through it is a slightly surreal experience, the whole thing a display of morality judgements in a place where they have no right to be.

“Dancing halls, discotheques and dancing theatres” are referred to in much the same way many would refer to the ninth circle of hell. I almost expected instructions to wash my mouth with soap and burn my laptop when I got to the end.

In short, the whole thing was probably written by some septuagenarian who still believes rock’n’roll is just another way to spell ‘Satan’. I mean, it actually mentions the word ‘discos’ – enough said.

Which is why I was hardly surprised when I arrived to Art.13, which is the part that allows the police to stop an artist from performing in the case of a prior conviction.

Well, in reality it doesn’t quite allow that, because I’m pretty sure that such a law would be overturned in five minutes flat were it to be challenged at EU-level.

What it does, however, is give the police such a wide and absolute discretion to refuse a permit that we might as well call ourselves North Korea and be done with it.

Think I’m exaggerating? Have a look for yourself:

“The Commissioner of Police shall refuse any application for a permit or license for the organization of any public entertainment where he is not satisfied that the character and antecedents of the applicant, proprietor, disc jockey or performing artist are not such as to give sufficient guarantee that no drug or other abuses will take place during the entertainment.”

The interpretative discretion here is at its maximum. In itself, when applied in a reasonable manner, the regulation itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Unfortunately, both administrations chose to abuse their powers by deciding that a minor drug offence by an artist is likely to turn an event into a licensed orgy. What utter rubbish.

When the matter was raised by this newspaper in the aftermath to Earth Garden, promises to revisit were made by the relevant authorities. What happened to these promises? This is a mere Legal Notice we are talking about, amending it should be a breeze. Even a change in policy as to its correct interpretation would be enough in the short term.

A sign of goodwill to this effect, preferably before the Sliema Arts Festival actually takes place, would at least show that the government is ready to put its money where its mouth is, undoubtedly earning significant respect in the process.

And if no such progress takes place, can someone enlighten the artists who are having their future prospects curtailed as to whether this is a case of two weights and two measures?

I’m pretty sure that a shocking amount of, for instance, artists who have taken part in Isle of MTV have a less than spotless record. I seem to remember incidents involving Snoop Dogg, Lady Gaga and Kid Rock at the very least. I’m sure that if they came up on my Internet search, they did the same at the depot.

How come the Maintenance of Good Order in Places of Entertainment legal notice does not apply to them as well?

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