The Shift has been refused access to the tax declarations of MPs in Malta on account that it is not registered with the Department of Information (DOI) – a position that blatantly flies in the face of the principles enshrined in the Media and Defamation Law.
A request filed for a copy of income tax declarations of all MPs, as part of ongoing investigations, was turned down citing a declaration by the government’s DOI that The Shift is not on its ‘press register’. This bars The Shift’s internationally accredited journalists from accessing information required to conduct its investigations in the public interest.
This development is the latest assault on press freedom by the government that is in effect acting against the provisions of the Media and Defamation law it enacted with such ceremony more than two years ago, with Owen Bonnici taking credit for the “reforms” that he said had been agreed with the media.
According to the provisions of the new law, introduced in April 2018, media houses, like The Shift, do not need to register with the DOI, which falls under the Office of the Prime Minister.
This notwithstanding, the DOI, always a faithful servant of the government, has continued with business-as-usual, refusing to update its processes to reflect changes in the law and denying access to information, services and events offered to other news organisations which voluntarily acceded to the government’s desire that they register despite the lack of any obligation to do so.
The Media and Defamation Act clearly states that media houses are not obliged to register and does not make registration a precondition to access government information. It states that “whosoever is an editor or a publisher of a newspaper, may, if he so elects,” be part of the media register.
It would have been ridiculous had it done so and yet the DOI still refuses to send The Shift any of the government’s press releases or list of daily media coverage, thereby preventing our journalists from asking the necessary questions.
The issue was raised by The Shift in the course of the public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. She too was systemically excluded from official government information – an issue she raised repeatedly.
When the Labour government had floated changes in the law, it had attempted to insert an obligation for media organisations to register. This was met with resistance, and the clause was excluded, at least on paper.
Mainstream media organisations did not contest the registration requirement that was maintained in effect and in practice, freeing the DOI to say that those who refuse to register are just being ‘difficult’ rather than defending the right to access information in the public interest without being artificially constrained by government’s malign bureaucracy.
The Shift’s journalists are thus denied the ability to scrutinise the tax declarations of MPs because the government in Malta does not recognise them as journalists, even though The Shift’s work has been recognised internationally and received a number of prestigious awards.
The Head of the DOI, Paul Azzopardi, dutifully told the Clerk of the House in response to The Shift’s request for access that “The Press Registry has no entries regarding Ms Caroline Muscat being registered as Editor of The Shift News”.
The Shift was then told that the Speaker of the House, Anglu Farrugia, was “not in a position to provide the requested information”.
Azzopardi was able to say this because The Shift is refusing to comply with a requirement that goes against the law. While the DOI states that registration is “voluntary”, news organisations are excluded if they do not comply.
It is obvious that following the enactment of the Media and Defamation Act in 2018, the Press Registry should have been abolished and replaced with a Media Registry that would have followed the law and confirmed that the registration of media houses, such as The Shift, was entirely optional and that non-registration would not attract negative consequences.
While the DOI has consistently used this line of reasoning, limiting access to information to The Shift’s journalists, it has never had an issue over the last three years identifying the editor for Right of Replies sent on behalf of Ministers to contest investigations – even when this itself is an abuse of the right, as the Right of Reply is intended for individuals, not Ministers who dominate every aspect of the public sphere.
Equally, the Office of the Speaker had no issue with classifying The Shift as press and recognising its editor when it came to vexatiously demanding amendments to an article.
The DOI’s and Office of the Speaker’s actions go against the Council of Europe’s recommendations, which refer to the arbitrary use of administrative measures such as registration and accreditation schemes by the government as harassment of journalists with the effect of frustrating their ability to contribute effectively to public debate. This has a “chilling effect” on press freedom, the Council of Europe said.
The thrust of the law when the media law was being revised was to preclude the government or the DOI from deciding who is or isn’t a journalist. Despite this, the department is still using the spirit of a defunct law to prevent media houses like The Shift from accessing crucial information required to perform their journalistic duties.
It is true that an amendment to the provisions of the Income Tax Management Act (which is where the right to inspect tax returns stems from) to reflect the provisions of the new Media and Defamation Act is long overdue and would solve the immediate issue. But, both the DOI and the Speaker’s Office demonstrate, through their selective discrimination and actions, a resistance to accountability that runs through the whole body politic which needs to be addressed once and for all.