VALLETTA, Malta (AP) — A European human rights watchdog recommended on Monday that Malta legalize abortion, improve gender equality and implement reforms to protect journalists, adding another international voice of criticism to the laws and culture on the Mediterranean island nation.
The Council of Europe’s rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatović, made an initial set of recommendations following her recent visit to Malta, during which she met with the prime minister, other ministers and civil society groups. A final report is expected later.
Malta, an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic European Union member, is one of the few Western states that has a total ban on abortion, after the republic of San Marino recently decriminalized it.
Mijatovic called on Maltese authorities to urgently repeal legal provisions criminalizing the procedure and to ensure women’s access to sexual and reproductive health care, including safe and legal access to abortion.
Earlier this year, an independent lawmaker recommended abortion be decriminalized, sparking some debate though the initiative didn’t gain much traction. Last month, Prime Minister Robert Abela said that discussion should continue, but shouldn’t be politicized.
Mihatovic welcomed the debate but said the continued criminalization and stigmatization of abortion not only puts Maltese women’s health at risk, “but also affects their equal enjoyment of other human rights.”
She also called for Malta to implement mandatory sexual education and take measures to improve gender equality. There is a need, she said in a statement, to “overcome prejudices and traditional and all other practices based on the idea of the inferiority of women or on stereotyped roles for men and women.”
The commissioner also referred to the conclusions of a public inquiry which found that the Maltese state “has to bear responsibility” for the 2016 assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia because of the culture of impunity that emanated from the highest levels of government.
Implementing the recommendations of that inquiry “should be a top priority for the government,” she said.
“The authorities should swiftly start putting in place the far-reaching reforms needed to ensure journalists’ safety and address mistrust in the media in Malta. This should begin with a coordinated response to threats and harassment against journalists, including online, in order to provide adequate protection measures,” she said in a statement.
Sections of the Maltese media have been targeted in recent months by fake websites imitating local news sites but containing untrue stories. More recently, some journalists were targets of phone calls warning them not to cover certain topics.
Caruana Galizia’s murder sparked international outrage and prompted the European Parliament to send a fact-finding mission to Malta. The country had separately been in the spotlight following the Panama Papers revelations, as two high-ranking government officials at the time were found to have acquired two companies in Panama.
Caruana Galizia had been trying to unearth links between financial dealings indicated by the leaked documents and prominent political and business figures on the tiny island nation.
More recently, Malta was placed on the so-called gray list by the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force watchdog group. The designation requires Malta to be placed under increased monitoring for money laundering and terror financing, along with Haiti, the Philippines and South Sudan.
The government didn’t respond to a request for comment Monday on the commissioner’s recommendations.