Ex-gay prosecution in Malta is globally significant for free speech

Matthew Grech left behind homosexual relationships after becoming a Christian.

The prosecution of Maltese ex-gay man Matthew Grech for sharing his testimony in a television interview will take place on 3 February in Valletta. It is the first case in the world where someone is accused under a 'conversion therapy' ban. The case matters greatly for free speech around the world.

Maltese Minister for Social Dialogue attacked dialogue

Matthew Grech is being prosecuted for allegedly 'advertising conversion therapy' in an interview on a small conservative television platform in Malta. Helena Dalli, the Maltese Minister for Social Dialogue, ironically attacked TVM, the Maltese state-funded television network for airing Matthew's interview. Matthew Grech's interview was swiftly taken down, suggesting that the view that his testimony amounted to 'advertising conversion therapy' had prevailed.

Insincerity of Maltese LGBT activists

At the same time we see breathtaking dishonesty by the former leaders of the Malta Gay Rights Movement, who supported Helena Dalli in this. Silvan Agius was director of the Human Rights and Integration Directorate of the Maltese government under Minister Dalli, as well as being head of the Malta Gay Rights Movement, which is equivalent to Stonewall in the UK. Agius called Grech's comments 'problematic' but said that he had not broken the law as he had not engaged in 'promotion' of 'conversion therapy'. If this is what the Maltese government really believed, why was the interview clip taken down? Was this attack from the government just an intimidation tactic?

Maltese government to stretch the meaning of 'advertising'

No doubt mindful of this case, the Maltese government now wants to stretch the meaning of 'advertising conversion therapy'. On 12 January, the Minister for Reform Rebecca Buttigieg announced an amendment to extend the definition of 'advertising conversion therapy' in Malta. According to the Times of Malta the new definition will cover "publishing, advertising, displaying, distributing, referral and circulation of any material promoting the practice." Malta Today also reported that the Maltese government would bring in harsher penalties, without providing any further details.

Hypocrisy of former leader of Malta Gay Rights Movement

Malta Gay Rights Movement was co-led by Gabi Calleja. She now runs the Maltese government's Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Unit. In this capacity she has now revealed that the amendment to define 'advertising' was brought because it had not been defined precisely in 2016. She calls this 'a legal loophole'. If so, Gabi Calleja has been a willing accomplice to this legal loophole as she debated 'conversion therapy' with Matthew Grech in a television debate in 2019! Either free debate and discussion is accepted on television, or it isn't. Which will prevail, free speech or censorship?

Government control of Maltese television

The Maltese government's treatment of Matthew Grech is not unique. In 2018 an editor from the Maltese state television network TVM criticised LGBT tourism for being linked to the rise in HIV cases in Malta. He was reprimanded on air by health minister Chris Fearne for saying this. It was the disgraced former tourism minister Konrad Mizzi who was supporting the LGBT tourism at the time of the interview.

This shows how the Maltese government has been desperate to control what is said by journalists about LGBT issues in the press. The truth is that social attitudes in Malta are relatively conservative, and this begs the question as to how the 'conversion practices' ban was pushed through in the first place.

Was the LGBT tourism push behind Malta's 'conversion practices' ban?

The fact that a government minister pushed back on criticism of LGBT tourism is significant. In 2015 Randall Berry, President Obama's LGBT Rights Special Envoy, visited Malta. Berry addressed the need for a 'conversion therapy' ban as well as pushing the idea that Malta 'had potential' as a LGBT tourism destination.

Public opinion in Malta was mostly opposed to permitting same-sex adoption and civil unions. In light of that, it is clear there was no genuine public support for a ban in Malta. However, given the Maltese government's history of corruption, the question that arises is, was it bribed by the promise of LGBT tourism into passing a 'conversion therapy' ban?

Malta's law set bans in motion internationally

This attack on Matthew Grech's discussion of leaving homosexuality has been possible because the law in Malta bans 'conversion practices', not just 'conversion therapy'. This wording was deliberately inserted in order to widen the scope of a ban. Malta's law has produced a domino effect whereby other countries and regions have passed bans of varying levels of severity.

In September 2018 Malta and the UN Development Programme signed a memorandum on 'advancing the equality of LGBTI people' in the Asia Pacific region. As there is a long history of Maltese expatriates living in Australia, this was significant. Subsequently two Australian territories passed bans on 'conversion practices' and another a ban on 'conversion therapy'. Germany and France, both EU countries like Malta, then passed bans, the German law being stricter than that of Malta.

Maltese European Commissioner on Equality tried to influence UK LGBT policy

Helena Dalli's full title in the Maltese government cabinet was Minister for Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberties. The truth is that her censorious attitude sought to shut down social dialogue and certainly failed to uphold civil liberties. In 2019 she was appointed EU Commissioner for Equality.

In September 2020 Helena Dalli spoke to the Gay Times about UK trans policy, and revealed that she had met British government officials to discuss the matter. Clearly she is only too happy to try to influence the UK. This is despite the fact that the UK has left the European Union, so is no longer answerable to her work as EU Commissioner for Equality.

Using LGBT laws to deflect from government corruption

On the whole, 'conversion therapy' or 'conversion practices' bans have been getting stricter since Malta passed its law in 2016. This is not an accident. LGBT activists around the world are angry that Matthew Grech has been able to share his testimony and discuss his views in the press. This has made the Maltese ban look ridiculous and unworkable.

It is very important to realise that Maltese journalists have a vested interest here to defend freedom of the press as Malta has a serious problem with free speech and press freedom. The same government that passed the ban on 'conversion practices' was later implicated in the assassination of a Maltese anti-corruption journalist in 2017. This has led Maltese journalists to be very vigilant about the workings of the government as well as press freedom and freedom of speech. In December 2019 the team behind The Shift News, a new independent press outlet in Malta, reported on anger from LGBT people in Malta. In protests demanding the then prime minister's resignation, some accused the government of deflecting from its own corruption by holding up its record of passing LGBT rights laws.

Backdoor online safety law

This begs the question as to why a government should want to clamp down on free speech on sexuality. By hiding behind the narrative that 'conversion therapy is harmful', a government – any government – can appear to be caring for its citizens' welfare whilst censoring them.

In reality stretching the definition of 'advertising conversion practices' in Malta would amount to a backdoor online safety law, censoring what people can say. We can see this clearly if we compare it with the anti-'conversion practices' amendment to the UK Online Safety Bill.

Alicia Kearns MP's amendment to the Online Safety Bill

Earlier this month Alicia Kearns, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons, tabled an amendment to the Online Safety Bill which would ban "content which advertises or promotes the practice of so-called conversion practices of LGBTQ+ individuals". The UK government then offered her a concession by promising to bring forward a distinct bill to ban 'conversion practices'.

The Maltese advertising ban and the sequence of events in the UK are opposites. However, ultimately we can see that they are both working towards the same end – a clampdown on free speech. As we have seen, what happens in Malta can have an effect elsewhere in the world. Malta's former Minister for Social Dialogue has been happy to involve herself in UK policy on sexuality and gender. This agenda to ban 'conversion practices' is clearly an international one, and as such, the case against Matthew Grech will send out signals to governments everywhere to be more intolerant of speech they don't like.

Dr Carys Moseley is a policy researcher for Christian Concern.