“Why is it okay for Michelangelo’s David to be naked in public but not for me?” James Stewart once wrote on nudity in Malta. Whatever the legislators’ view on classical art is, nudity in public is a criminal offense in Malta. Unlike with issues like parking, construction or protection of endangered species, enforcement is swift and strong. This is partly because of the general public’s enthusiastic cooperation in reporting such cases to the police. In June, a tourist was sentenced for being naked in public. In May, three police officers could be seen on location when a young woman decided to sunbathe on the Triton Fountain in Valletta, wearing a bikini. And while many comments as to what qualifies as indecent exposure float around, few can pinpoint what exactly counts as criminal offence. So, what are the rules, exactly?

When Hanako Tanaka and her friend went sunbathing near Tigne shortly after moving to Malta in 2012, she had figured out that nudity is off-limits, but she did not expect that she was committing an offence when she untied her bikini straps. “In my opinion I was well out of sight from any pedestrian area, but apparently someone spotted me. I was approached by two policemen,” she told Eve. “I genuinely didn’t know! I guess that’s a bit ignorant, but I had recently been elsewhere in Europe, where this was no issue at all,” she explains.

Malta is not the only tourist destination trying to set decency rules. Barcelona famously banned swimwear on the streets in 2011. “We have to maintain standards,” a local councillor asserted then. However, unlike signs against topless sunbathing on the streets or wearing shorts in churches in Malta, it is difficult to find any consistent source explaining what can and cannot be worn to count as decent, although there are decades of case law. Just when the first bikini flashed in a James Bond movie and on the cover of Playboy, Malta saw its first court case on the question of its appropriateness – Il-Pulizija versus Christine Adams (1962).

This case was used as an example that the courts acknowledge the subjective nature of the ‘decency’ concept, so her choice to wear a bikini at St George’s Bay was proclaimed not a contravention. In Il-Pulizija vs Lorraine Falzon (2007), the court affirmed that the understanding of decent clothing is subjective, and judgements must take into account the timing, environment and other factors.

How is an individual to figure out if they are disobeying the law then? Hanako Tanaka, who found out the hard way, compares her experience in Malta with Singapore, where she currently lives. There are similar laws against indecency, “But it’s not arbitrary like in Malta. Things are more strictly defined and the judicial system is fair and predictable,” she observes. The young woman remembers, though, that the two officers who told her to cover up were stern but polite: “They told me that it was indecent and that I could get fined and arrested, that Malta is a Catholic country etc. I apologised and put on a shirt immediately. Apparently that was enough.”

“Police internal guidelines state that when a person is indecently dressed, such as wearing a bathing suit when they are not near beaches or swimming pools or for example when men are shirtless or when women are only wearing a bikini top and shorts/skirt, the police are instructed to warn the persons and inform them that they should cover-up forthwith,” Rodienne Bartolo Haidon of the Police Community and Media Relations Unit explained to Eve. “If the person does not abide with the instructions given, a contravention is issued.” So, as in Hanako’s case, many cases simply end right where they happen – with a warning. What happens if the case moves forward?

Article 338 of the Criminal Code stipulates: “Every person is guilty of a contravention against public order, who […] (q) in the harbours, on the seashore or in any other public place, exposes himself naked or is indecently dressed.” As stated in article 209, offence against decency or morals can be punished by imprisonment up to three months and a fine. Previous case law established that offence against decency or morals counts when acts concerned “can provoke, or which actually do provoke a sense of discomfort, disgust or repulsion” (The Police vs Peter Ohaka, 2002). The difference between a ‘mere contravention’ and such offence is made by establishing whether the acts were voluntary or just a “result of carelessness or lack of regard”.

In The Police vs Pol Parreno Prat & Javier Marques Perez-Albert (2010), the court found two tourists guilty of exposing themselves on St George’s Beach and attributed ‘havoc’ and ‘indecent acts’ frequently happening there to foreign nationals. It is not stated what the two Catalans did exactly, but under the article against indecent clothing, they were charged with a suspended prison sentence and a fine of 100 euros. Next, in 2014, The Police vs Christina Betke ruling fined the accused with 50 euros for exposing herself (there were additional charges). In The Police vs Piotr Stefan Roznerski & Monika Piotrowska (2015), the court also discharged the accused, despite finding them guilty for exposing themselves in public, because they were first-time offenders. The following year, in The Police vs Bushra Found Bakhit Comi, the court was not as merciful (without providing any details on the actions of the accused or whether his police record) and fined him with 50 euros.

Finally, an interesting case in 2007 was brought to court against a number of lap dancers and club visitors from various countries in Paceville and Bugibba. Numerous persons were accused of dancing in bras and tangas. The court admitted that defining morality is not its forte: “[W]e are a tourist country and so this was bound to happen.” The court also deplored sales of postcards from Malta with women in various degrees of nudity – “making [receivers] believe that our country is of very loose morals.” In this context, the court found that lap dancers performing in their underwear in strictly monitored adult entertainment venues are the least of concerns – and acquitted the women.

In short, although details are lacking, it is easy to see that full nudity is punished in Malta. On the other hand, ‘indecency’ is rather vague, and the courts have reaffirmed numerous times that it is in the eyes of the beholder. The Criminal Code is still invoked, but for persons who are ‘under-dressed’ and do not resist orders to cover up it is likely to end with a mere warning.

Oh, and the police have clarified it once and for all: shirtless men are off-limits. Also, if you want to wear a bikini top like these celebrities, you’ll have to dress it up.

Further reading:

How not to be shady at a Maltese beach