Freedom in the World
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A national referendum in March 2003 narrowly approved the country's accession to the European Union. The referendum was followed by national elections the next month and a victory for the center-right, which had run on a pro-Europe platform, beating out the more anti-Europe center-left.
Malta is a small island nation with ties to both the European and Arab worlds. After it gained independence from the British in 1964, Malta became a republic in 1974. From 1964 to 1971, the country was ruled by the Nationalist Party (PN), which pursued a pro-Western alliance. In 1971, the European alliance broke down when the (Labour Party) MLP took power and moved the country toward nonalignment and a special friendship with leftist governments in Libya and Algeria. The PN returned to power in 1987, and in 1990 the country submitted its application for full membership in the EU (then the EC).
After a brief interlude with the return to power of the MLP from 1996 to 1998, Malta continued in a pro-European direction that culminated in a national referendum on March 8, 2003 on EU accession. Malta was the first among the 10 current candidate countries to hold a referendum on the issue of EU membership, which was approved by a vote of 53.65 percent.
The referendum was hotly contested between the two leading parties, which also ran for national office only a month later, on April 12. The PN, which ran a pro-EU campaign, won the elections with 52 percent of the vote and 35 seats. The MLP, which campaigned on an anti-EU platform, received 48 percent of the vote and 30 seats. The smaller Alternattiva Demokratika (AD) lost support compared with the elections in 1998. By the end of the summer, the MLP had changed its position on the EU, dropping its efforts to scuttle the country's membership.
The Maltese are free to change their government democratically. Malta has a unicameral legislature with 65 seats that are decided by a national system of proportional representation with an additional single-transferable-vote (STV) arrangement. STV is different from the traditional "list" proportional representation system because it allows the voter not only to choose a party but also to rank-order the candidates running for office. Parliament is elected for a five-year term, and members of parliament, in turn, elect the president to serve five years.
There was no apparent increase in the level of corruption, which remained low, within the government over the year. However, in 2002, a chief justice had to resign after a bribery scandal over a prison sentence appeal.
The constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press. There are currently 4 daily newspapers, 10 weeklies, 19 radio stations, and 6 television stations. There is free Internet access.
Although the country is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, other religious groups are tolerated and respected. There are small communities of Muslims, Jews, and Protestants, the latter being mostly British retirees. The constitution establishes Catholicism as the state religion, and the state grants subsidies only to Catholic schools. The government recently approved a site for a 500-grave Muslim cemetery.
Academic freedom is respected, and there is generally free and open discus sion in the country. However, a recent amendment to the criminal code makes incitement to racial hatred a crime that can carry a prison term between 6 and 8 months.
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association, and the law recognizes the right to form and join trade unions. Limits on the right to strike were eased in 2002. However, the ILO continues to criticize Malta for the compulsory arbitration clause in its Employment and Industrial Relations Act, which allows the government to force a settlement on striking workers. Such clauses are usually limited to situations involving essential services, or acute national crises, or when the two sides request arbitration.
The judiciary is independent, and the rule of law prevails in civil and criminal matters. However, the Commission on Administrative Justice issued a report in the early part of the year that details a significant backlog in court cases and magisterial inquiries. Amnesty International also released a report in 2002 critical of the forcible deportations of more than 220 Eritreans from Malta in September and October of that year. Primarily a transit country for asylum seekers, Malta has done little to integrate immigrants who generally go on to the United States, Canada, or Australia.
The government respects personal autonomy and freedom. However, divorce is illegal and violence against women continues to be a problem on the island. Additionally, of the 65 seats in parliament, women occupy only 6. A total of 16 women competed for national office during the elections this year. The criminal code has been amended to include a provision to prohibit trafficking in persons. Prostitution is illegal on the island and violators face stiff penalties.