Capital: Valletta
Population: 414,000

Political Rights Score: 1 *
Civil Liberties Score: 1 *
Status: Free

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Malta received a downward trend arrow due to its refusal to assist seagoing migrants in distress and the deplorable conditions of detention centers for migrants, which have yet to be brought up to European Union standards.


Immigration issues emerged again for Malta in 2009 after the European Union Justice Commissioner publicly criticized the deplorable conditions for immigrants and asylum seekers in Malta's detention centers. In August, tensions arose with Italy when Malta failed to rescue Eritrean migrants in distress off Malta's coast; Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini suggested Malta should hand over part of its search and rescue area to Italy.

After gaining independence from Britain in 1964, Malta joined the Commonwealth and became a republic in 1974. Power has alternated between the pro-Western, center-right Nationalist Party (PN) and the nonaligned, leftist Malta Labour Party (MLP). The PN pursued membership in the European Union (EU), which the country finally achieved in 2004.

In March 2004, the parliament elected Edward Fenech Adami, the outgoing prime minister and veteran PN leader, as president of the republic. Lawrence Gonzi, the deputy prime minister, took over the premiership.

Gonzi led the PN to a narrow victory over the MLP in the March 2008 elections; the PN won 49.3 percent of the overall vote, compared with 48.9 percent for the MLP. However, the results in the country's 13 five-seat electoral constituencies gave the MLP 34 seats and the PN just 31, triggering a constitutional provision that allowed extra seats to be added to ensure a legislative majority for the party winning the popular vote. The PN consequently received four additional seats. Voter turnout was 93 percent, the lowest the country had seen since 1971.

In January 2009, former Labour leader George Abela was nominated for president and was sworn in April. He was the first president to be nominated by a political party not in power and the first backed by both sides of the House since 1974. In June European Parliamentary elections, Simon Busuttil was reelected with a historical 69,000 votes.

In September 2008, the government welcomed the EU's adoption of the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum. Malta had long advocated a common EU immigration policy to help share the responsibility of integrating the influx of migrants it receives each year. Tensions over immigration flared up again in 2009 after 75 Eritrean migrants died at sea in August due to Malta's failure to send rescue vessels. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini accused Malta of being ill-equipped to handle its vast search and rescue area (SAR), and urged Malta to either hand over part of its SAR to Italy or take in the asylum seekers that Italy saves within Malta's jurisdiction. However, Malta rejected Frattini's proposals. In March, EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot criticized Malta for the deplorable conditions of its detention centers, including break-outs, riots, and overcrowding. The state of Maltese detention centers caused the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Medecins Sans Frontiers to leave Malta in protest that same month. The organization resumed its work in July after improvements were made, allowing for medical practitioners to work under better conditions. Also in March, Malta struck an agreement with Libya specifying that both countries would assist one another with search and rescue missions.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Malta is an electoral democracy. Members of the 65-seat unicameral legislature, the House of Representatives, are elected through proportional representation with a single-transferable-vote (STV) arrangement, allowing voters to rank competing candidates by preference. The parliament is elected for five-year terms, and lawmakers in turn elect the president, who also serves for five years. The president names the prime minister, usually the leader of the majority party or coalition. Elections are generally free and fair. After the 2008 elections, four extra seats were added to the parliament, for a total of 69 members, to ensure that the party winning the overall popular vote obtained a legislative majority.

The ruling PN and opposition MLP dominate national politics. The smaller Democratic Alternative party also competes, but is not currently represented in the parliament.

The EU has faulted Malta for its lack of a specific anticorruption program. In November 2009, the town mayor of Zebbug was accused of abuse of power for hiring council workers to work at his home. Also in November, Finance Minister Tonio Fenech was accused of corruption in property sales. Malta was ranked 45 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press, though incitement to racial hatred is punishable by a jail term of six to eight months. Blasphemy is unlawful, and 162 criminal charges were initiated by authorities in 2009. There are several daily newspapers and weekly publications in Maltese and English, as well as radio and television stations, and residents have access to Italian television broadcasts. In February, Malta Today was fined EUR 7,000 ($9,400) for an article printed four years earlier which had mentioned the presence of slot machines at a local brasserie; the article was viewed as illegally promoting gambling. Mr. Fenech filed a libel suit against two Malta Today editors in October for casting doubts on his integrity as a minister. The lawsuit was pending at the year's end. After Malta Today broke the corruption story about Mr. Fenech in November, he filed judicial protest against Malta Today editor Matthew Vella, PL leader Joseph Muscat who had confirmed the allegations, and the news head of One Production Ltd. Proceedings were still under way at the year's end. Also in November, University of Malta banned the student magazine Ir-Realta' for publishing a sexually-charged story. However, the editors sidestepped the ban by publishing the edition online. The government does not block internet access.

The constitution establishes Roman Catholicism as the state religion, and the state grants subsidies only to Catholic schools. While the population is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, small communities of Muslims, Jews, and Protestants are tolerated and respected. There is one Muslim private school. Academic freedom is respected.

The constitution provides for freedoms of assembly and association, and the government generally respects these rights. NGOs investigating human rights issues are able to operate without state interference. The law recognizes the right to form and join trade unions, and limits on the right to strike were eased in 2002. However, a compulsory arbitration clause in the country's Employment and Industrial Relations Act allows the government to force a settlement on striking workers, contravening the International Labor Organization's Convention 87. The clause is reportedly used only when all other channels for arbitration have been exhausted. Approximately 55 percent of workers are unionized.

The judiciary is independent, and the rule of law prevails in civil and criminal matters. Prison conditions generally meet international standards, although the Council of Europe's Commission for Human Rights and the EU Justice Commissioner have criticized poor detention conditions for irregular migrants and asylum seekers, including overcrowding, rioting and breakouts.

In a report released by the General Workers Union in September 2008, migrant workers are often exploited and subject to substandard working conditions. Malta faced criticism over immigration policies once again in 2009, though Malta and Libya reached an agreement in March to assist one another with rescue missions. In April 2009, Malta refused to assist a boat carrying 140 immigrants. Malta also ended a program called "Dar," which had paid for travel fare and had awarded a small stipend to migrants who voluntarily repatriated to their country of origin. In November, Malta won a bid to host the European Commission's European Asylum Support Office which will facilitate communication and cooperation with EU member states on asylum applications. The office is projected to open in 2010.

Women occupy only 6 of the 69 seats in parliament, though they now hold two cabinet posts, the first to attain such senior government positions. Divorce is illegal, and violence against women continues to be a problem. Abortion is prohibited, even in cases of rape or incest. Malta is a destination for men and women trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Under European Commission directives, Malta changed the wording of its Equality for Men and Women Act in November 2009 to be more inclusive and in line with EU rules.

*Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

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