Malta. Press freedom groups worry about unprecedented restrictions on freedom of information

The undersigned international media freedom organizations today express their growing concern at the challenges the Maltese media face in accessing public information through the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. The unprecedented appeals by some 30 ministries and government entities against a decision by the Information and Data Protection Commissioner ordering the disclosure of public spending information requested by The Shift News are emblematic of these challenges.

Calls come from Freedom of Information Requests which the publisher of The Shift sent to various public bodies seeking documentation of possible contracts and payments made by public entities to Malta Today co-owner Savior Balzan and his business entities. The Shift stressed that the information was in the public interest because it concerned the use of public money. However, these requests were denied by several entities, who argued that the requested information did not exist in the form of standard documentation.

After the newspaper appealed, a review by the Data Commissioner rejected that argument and ordered the documents released. One by one, around 30 different ministries and public authorities have since filed identical appeals, arguing that the demands placed an undue burden on state departments. These ongoing coordinated challenges at the Appeals Tribunal will result in costly and time-consuming legal battles for the newspaper, which will be both financially and psychologically draining. Already the point of sale has been forced to turn to a crowdfunding campaign to finance his legal case.

This case concerns a simple principle that affects all media in Malta: the right to access information held by the public about how taxpayers’ money is used. It is a fundamental right essential to the functioning of democracy. The coordinated refusal of the Maltese authorities to comply with the Data Commissioner’s finding that there is a clear public interest justification for the information disclosed is of serious concern. It has serious implications for transparency and media freedom and sets a precedent that undermines the ability of all media in Malta to do their job. Moreover, the transparency of Savior Balzan’s relations with the government is of greater importance for press freedom in Malta: he is one of the seven members of the Committee of Experts who will oversee the implementation of the recommendations. from the public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Although the collection of documents by the ministries can be cumbersome, this is not a sufficient reason to refuse the disclosure of information of public interest. We therefore urge relevant public bodies to respect the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act and the decision of the Data Protection Commissioner, drop their appeals and provide the requested documents in a timely manner.

Worryingly, the current experience of Shift illustrates a much broader problem with access to information in Malta. Public bodies routinely deny freedom of information requests from the media on arbitrary grounds. Responses are often delayed until the last possible minute and often followed by requests for extensions. When FOI requests are accepted, the information is often incomplete. Meanwhile, regular appeals to the Data Commissioner lead to protracted taxpayer-funded court battles, further compromising the timeliness of reporting. The evidence also suggests that requests for access to information from certain media, or on certain subjects, are treated in a discriminatory manner by certain administrative bodies. Inundated with calls, Malta’s under-resourced data commissioner does not have the capacity to take on all cases.

The result is that instead of fostering a culture of transparency, Malta’s current freedom of information legislation is routinely abused to obstruct requests and obscure the disclosure of public information. Going forward, it is increasingly clear that amendments to the existing law of 2008 are needed. Revisions have already been requested by both the current Data Commissioner and the independent counsel of the Public inquiry into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Similar concerns have also been expressed by the Venice Commission and the Special Rapporteur for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

Our organizations agree that reforms are needed to, firstly, streamline the legal process for access to information appeals and, secondly, remove the right of public authorities to appeal against an order granting the commissioner the right to access a document as part of the commissioner’s decision to decide whether or not it should be released. Adopting such changes would bring significant improvements to the freedom of information system and help support watchdog journalism in Malta. However, in the end, any change in legislation will only be effective if it is complemented by the development of a culture of transparency and accountability in government. Our organizations stand ready to assist in any way possible in the development of these FOI amendments in the years to come.

Sign:

SECTION 19

European Center for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)

Unlimited Free Press (FPU)

International Press Institute (IPI)

OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation

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