ECtHR: Malta ordered to pay out €20,000 after banning Scottish play

The European Court of Human Rights has ordered Malta to pay €20,000 to a theatre company and three individuals after unlawfully banning the play Stitching by Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson.

Unifaun Theatre Productions Limited, a limited liability company, and four Maltese nationals, Adrian Buckle, Christopher Gatt, Maria Pia Zammit and Mikhail Acopovich Basmadjian, took their case to the court this morning.

In December 2008, the theatre company applied to the Board for Film and Stage Classification for a rating certificate ahead of a planned staging of the play, which deals with a troubled relationship between a man and a woman. However, the Board banned the play.

The reasons for the decision included the play being blasphemous, showing contempt for the victims of the Auschwitz death camp, portraying dangerous sexual perversions and referring to the sexual assault of children.

The domestic courts rejected constitutional appeals under article 10 and article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights in June 2010 and November 2012.

In particular, the Constitutional Court of Malta found that any genuine aim the play had in portraying relationships was submerged under the instances of blasphemy, the vilification of the dignity of women and children, and the glorification of sexual perversion.

The applicants sought to challenge the ban in the European Court of Human Rights on the basis of an article 10 (freedom of expression) violation.

Handing down its judgment this morning, the court found that “the law relied on by the respondent Government was not of a sufficient quality and that the interference was a result of a procedure which was not prescribed by law”.

It noted that the guidelines governing film and stage classification were only revealed during the domestic proceedings in December 2009, meaning that they “did not attain the relevant quality of law in so far as they were not accessible”.

It agreed, therefore, that there had been a violation of article 10 of the European Convention in respect of the first, third, fourth and fifth applicants.

The court ordered the joint payment of €10,000 in respect of non-pecunciary damage and €10,000 in respect of costs and expenses to those four applicants.