Flag of Malta

By Madison Neidlinger



Since 2002, Malta has declined in relation to freedom of press and speech, leading to more restrictions on expression being implemented in order to protect their Roman Catholic faith. Over the years, Reporters Without Borders has documented Malta’s gradual fall from being ranked No. 13 out of 100 in 2002, dropping to No. 23 in 2015 in terms of press freedom. Malta is currently ranked 48th out of 180 countries incorporated in the World Press Freedom Index in 2015. Though Malta is overall free in terms of its press and expression, over the years it has seemed to evolve into a more restrictive country.

Historical Background

Located in the Mediterranean Sea, Malta is a European island country with a population of nearly 403,000 inhabitants. With the island only being 95 square miles, Malta is known as “the most densely populated nation-state in Europe” (Thinking through Tourism). The official religion of Malta is Roman Catholic, which plays a vast role in Maltese society.

Throughout history, Malta has experienced a vast amount of rulers who sought after control of the land due to its strategic location, dating back to as early as 1000 B.C. when the Phoenicians settled on the island. Years later in 218 B.C., the Roman Empire took control of Malta due to the Punic Wars, but the country fell under the control of the Byzantine Empire in 533. It wasn’t until 1800 that Britain took Malta from the French’s control and “under British rule, Malta changed from a theocracy ruled by a religious order, to a self-governing colony with an active internal political life” (Saints and Fireworks). The Maltese demanded self-government throughout the 19th century and in 1964, Malta finally gained its independence and additionally became a member of the United Nations. Following its independence, Malta became a republic in 1974 and today, Malta is a fairly free country compared to other countries in the world.

After Malta’s independence, tourism became an alternative source of income for Malta and “from the early 1960s onwards, sun, sand and sea plus colorful fishing boats have been central to Malta’s tourist promotion” (Thinking through Tourism). Since Malta is such a small country, it relies partly on the revenue that tourism brings in, especially when the number of tourists triples the amount of residents per year. Malta contains some of the oldest standing structures in the world, the Megalithic Temples, making these historic temples a popular tourist location and part of what makes Malta so unique.

Free Speech

While Malta is a relatively free country and its constitution guarantees freedom of speech and press, there are a variety of circumstances in which these rights are not upheld. Various acts of legislation over the years, including the Maltese Criminal Code and the Press Act, have both reinforced and restricted these freedoms.

Malta’s official religion is Roman Catholic and with 98 percent of the citizens adhering to the religion, the church holds immense power and has caused restrictions on freedom of expression.  Article 163 of the Maltese Criminal Code states, “Whosoever by words, gestures, written matter, whether printed or not, or pictures or by some other visible means, publicly vilifies the Roman Catholic Apostolic Religion which is the religion of Malta, or gives offence to the Roman Catholic Apostolic Religion by vilifying those who profess such religion or its ministers, or anything which forms the object of, or is consecrated to, or is necessarily destined for Roman Catholic worship, shall, on conviction, be liable to imprisonment for a term from one to six months” (Reporters Without Borders). From 2011 to 2015, Malta has slightly decreased the number of those convicted of “public blasphemy” from 119 to 99 convictions. Though the number of blasphemy cases is slowly decreasing, it is still occurring even though Malta is widely known for being free when it comes to speech laws.

Strict censorship laws have also ignited tension in Malta over the years. Obscene speech is criminalized in this country and is punishable by a fine and imprisonment. In the past year, censorship laws were relaxed; however, a play called “Stitching” by Anthony Nielson was banned in the country for its obscene acts of pornographic material, which is illegal in Malta, and blasphemy against Roman Catholicism, the state religion. The banning of this play has caused an uproar by the Maltese people and has been criticized by the Council of Europe.

The Maltese Front Against Censorship advocates against laws that they say infringe on the Maltese people’s freedom of expression. In February 2010, protestors traveled to the country’s capital, Valetta, to dispute the government’s escalating censorship laws. An incident that contributed to the protest was the arrest of a young man who was accused of offending the church. The Nadur Carnival is an increasingly popular adult carnival in Malta and in 2009, it received negative press attention when a young man was sentenced to a one-month suspended jail term for dressing as Jesus Christ. Government officials deemed the individual’s costume as blasphemy and therefore illegal.

An article in the Times of Malta, “Vilification and Freedom,” states the case for complete freedom of speech, including blasphemous expressions and the use of obscene material. This article claims that one of the main reasons for the restrictions of speech is to prevent harm to others. It then argues that some of the largest advances in history were the result of people speaking out and saying things that were considered offensive in their time. Without complete freedom to say what one wants, speech would be considered privileged and not truly free. The issue of blasphemy and strict censorship within the Maltese society is an ongoing battle between the Maltese people and the government, alongside the Roman Catholic Church. Malta’s Criminal Code, which criminalizes blasphemy, has not been restructured since 1933. Malta has made major strides over the years with relaxing the censorship laws along with blasphemy convictions; however, there are still instances of these speech restrictions that are hoped to be reformed in later years.

Free Press

Much like freedom of speech, freedom of the press is another highly controversial issue in Malta. One of the biggest components of this issue is defamation law. As of 1997, there were 185 libel cases pending within the courts, with 36 cases filed in 2014 alone. Under Article 252 of the Maltese Criminal Code, defamation is a criminal offense that can result in a fine or imprisonment.

One such instance of a libel suit occurred in 2006 when the newspaper MaltaToday wrote three articles that were later accused of libel against their subject. In the articles by two separate authors, Maltese lawyer, Peter Fenech, was accused of not paying rent on government-owned properties that his company operated and waiving debts. Fenech denied all of the claims and in 2012, MaltaToday was required to pay a fine of €18,000. MaltaToday then countered the verdict by appealing it in 2014 on the grounds that it was not libel. As of April 2016, a decision still has not been reached on the appeal, but cases like this show just how opinionated and unclear the Maltese government is when it comes to freedom of press.

The other main topic common in Maltese press issues is obscenity. In March 2011, a student author and an editor of a university newspaper were both accused of publishing pornographic and obscene material. The article contained sexual acts of various degrees, a swear word against the Virgin Mary, and the use of the word “God” in a sexual manner. After going to court, the judge ruled that the prosecution had failed to adequately define public morality and what damage the article had caused to it with any evidence. The acquittal of the two students was a victory for all citizens opposed to the strict press laws, but the victory was short-lived. In April of the same year, the attorney general of Malta appealed the case, claiming that the material the students published was simply too obscene and offensive. The attorney general claimed that they had violated the Malta Criminal Code and Malta Press Act, but the judge ruled in favor of the previous acquittal. This instance of confrontation on freedom of press marked a change in attitude towards the issue and many hope it will aid in further reform of the laws.

Even after various setbacks and advances, today the freedom of press is still a contested topic in Malta. In an editorial entitled “How Free is the Free Press?” the topic of the current media climate in Malta is discussed. Certain members of Malta’s Labour Party are currently calling for surveillance of the press while members of the press are obviously in favor of more freedoms. The advent of the internet, which isn’t restricted in Malta, has further increased the already strained press issue on the island nation. The article argues for the ability of the press to write freely as they should have the ability to scrutinize public figures’ actions but only in an ethical manner. Currently, journalists face the possibility of imprisonment for their works and many use this possibility against them for personal gain. Many also criticize the ability of the politicians to be exempt from speech laws in parliamentary proceedings while the threat of imprisonment to journalists for reporting on these very same politicians still exists. This editorial is just another episode in the ongoing battle of the Maltese people against strict press laws.

Critical Comparison

When comparing Malta and the United States on freedom of speech and press, it is clear to see that the United States is quite freer than Malta. The clearest distinction comes from the issues of blasphemy. Two of America’s founding principles are freedom of speech and the separation of church and state. While one can investigate the extent to which freedom of speech exists, the separation of church and state alone removes the possibility of having a blasphemy law in America. As the official religion of Malta, Roman Catholicism is deeply rooted in the foundation of the country’s laws and government. The religion was heavily influential throughout its entire history, so it is understandable that blasphemy laws exist there. However, due to America’s refusal to relate any religion to its government, speaking against or offending a religion is not a criminal action and rather qualified as free speech. Hate speech is outlawed in Malta and in many other parts of the world; however, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that hate speech is a form of protected speech. In 2011, a case titled Snyder v. Phelps found that public speech on public property was protected, no matter how “outrageous” the speech was. A group associated with the Westboro Baptist Church protested the funeral of Matthew Snyder, a former Marine who died in the Iraq War. The court found that the First Amendment protected the public protestors at a funeral against tort liability. Similarly, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that flag desecration is also protected as free speech; however, any damage or offence to the Malta flag is a criminal offense and the individual responsible could be fined and sentenced to jail time. These are just a few examples of how the United States and Malta differ with respect to freedom of speech.

The issue of obscenity and pornographic materials is also a difference between these two countries in terms of free speech. As evidenced through the banning of the play “Stitching,” Malta does not approve of sexual acts or nudity in the public domain. In 1974, a similar case heard by the Supreme Court of the United States, Jenkins v. Georgia, a movie theater manager appealed a conviction for distributing obscene material in the form of a film he showed at his theater. In this case, Jenkins’s conviction was overturned by the court on the grounds that nudity alone was not enough to consider the film “patently offensive” so Jenkins could not be punished for his actions. It also decided that juries do not have the right to uncontrolled discretion in deciding what is patently offensive. While the actions in the film were not described to be as obscene as the acts in “Stitching,” by the reasoning of the Supreme Court’s ruling it is clear to see that the United States is much more protective of free speech in this area.

In the topic of press freedom, the United States is also more progressive than Malta. One such aspect is in the form of libel. As seen in the case against Peter Fenech, specifically his victory, libel is fairly unprotected, but it is still a fairly undecided topic as the appeal is still pending. A similar case came to the Supreme Court in 1964 entitled New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan. In this case L.B. Sullivan claimed that he had been libeled in an advertisement in the New York Times, making him look like a criminal for handling of civil rights protestors by police while he was police commissioner in Alabama. The decision upheld that the New York Times had done nothing wrong for two reasons. First, the only way Sullivan could win is if he had proven that the paper had committed its action with “actual malice,” knowing that what they were printing was false. Second, the Court claimed that as a public official, Sullivan should be able to handle criticism and that journalists had the right to examine his actions. The claim of not having “actual malice” is similar to the decision in the Fenech case in Malta as it was proven that the newspaper did not have proof of their claims. However, the second claim in the Sullivan case does not agree with standard judiciary decisions in Malta. In Malta, the criticism would not have been defended as in any way essential, only finding fault in the falsehood of their statements. While libel is handled similarly between the two countries, Malta is still clearly behind the United States in this regard as well.

Lastly, the issue of obscenity and pornographic material comes up again in the freedom of press debate. In the case of the two students and their college newspaper in Malta, the two students were acquitted after the prosecution failed to prove how the pornographic material in the newspaper damaged public morality. A similar outcome came in the U.S. Supreme Court case in 1972, Kois vs. Wisconsin, when a man appealed a conviction for publishing an underground newspaper containing nude photographs and a sex poem. The man won the case after the court decided that the nude photos related to the news articles of the paper and that the sex poems could not entirely prove a dominant theme of sexual material overall. This decision was fairly similar to the acquittal in the Malta case. Both cases came to generally the same conclusion that it couldn’t be proven in either case that the newspapers were written in a damaging way. From these two cases, it can be seen that obscene and pornographic materials receive fairly similar treatment in the two countries.


Malta has transformed into a republic since its independence; however, this country continues to struggle with the Roman Catholic Church’s infringement on the Maltese people’s freedom of expression along with the strict obscenity laws imposed by the government. While Malta’s constitution states that the people of the country have freedom of the press and speech, there still remains restrictions that limit what a person can say and do, thus not giving absolute freedom to the Maltese people. The United States and Malta share similar laws in terms of obscenity, although Malta’s obscenity laws are far stricter than in the United States. Malta remains one of the freest countries in the world; however, it cannot be considered entirely free until the laws are relaxed in terms of blasphemy and obscenity cases.


Works Cited

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This essay was last updated April 30, 2016.

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