The Department of Information (DOI) has refused to give The Shift access to MPs’ tax declarations because we’re not on its ‘press register’. The very idea contradicts the 2018 Media and Defamation Law.
That’s the name for those “reforms” Owen Bonnici tried to take credit for after attempting to push through a draft law that included clauses where the editors of websites who failed to register would have been fined, and where protection of sources would only exist for registered media.
Unfortunately for the former Justice Minister, the Council of Europe described 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.
According to the CoE, such structures have a “chilling effect” on press freedom.
Malta’s earlier Press Act of 23 August 1974 did include a media register, and that law had to be revised. Unfortunately, no one seems to have told the DOI or the OPM’s pet Speaker of the House about it.
I’ll sum up the Coles Notes version for them here.
Under the 2018 Media and Defamation Act, registration of media houses is optional. It clearly states that “whosoever is an editor or a publisher of a newspaper, may, if he so elects,” be part of the media register.
There should be no negative consequences for non-registration. In fact, websites like ours aren’t able to register even if we wanted to. It’s only open to newspapers (ie. traditional print media). Of course, the DOI accepts such registrations anyway, bending the law to suit its needs even as it excludes those who are abiding by the law, but not its own terms.
Speaker Anglu Farrugia has complied by refusing to give The Shift access to MPs’ tax declarations.
You see, the media laws have been changed but the Income Tax Management Act cited by the Office of the Speaker still refers to the old law’s concepts — and everyone’s happy to ignore this discrepancy when discrimination serves their purposes.
The Office of the Speaker asks the DOI if it’s ok to send information that should be available to journalists for scrutiny in the public interest, and if the DOI says ‘no’ the request is refused.
The DOI — which falls under the Office of the Prime Minister — is acting out of spite.
I wonder if our previous investigation into asset declarations had anything to do with it? No one had bothered to compare them to every previous declaration filed by each individual until The Shift spent months on the project.
That sort of slow, meticulous investigative work is the role of a truly independent press.
It’s how we found out that parliamentary secretary for all things crypto Silvio Schembri earned almost double the income he declared to parliament in 2017.
It’s how we discovered that Konrad Mizzi’s reported income and net wealth had decreased steadily since 2014, but he started spending more than he was earning when his Panama company was exposed in 2016.
It’s how we noticed Edward Scicluna quietly accumulating his pot of gold. The former Finance Minister was adding €60,000 to €70,000 per year to his own bank balance while doing nothing to protect public funds.
To cite a spineless yes-man, “Whoever wants to hijack a system, it is that person who is responsible. I am not.” Scicluna’s most cherished first principle is clearly ‘The Lord helps those who help themselves’.
And let’s not forget Joseph Muscat’s magical unchanging bank balance, the financial cornucopia that coughed out cash to support his family’s lavish lifestyle without ever running dry.
I wonder what Robert Abela’s tax returns might tell us?
These arrogant ministers with their car and driver aren’t bigger than you — they work for you. They get away with bluster and bullying because you knuckle under in the face of their threats, and because so many blindly subscribe to tribal loyalties.
A truly independent press can’t be bullied, bribed or stage-managed.
Saviour Balzan’s ‘controlled’ interview with Konrad Mizzi — with its scripted questions and careful avoidance — is the opposite of journalism. Keith Schembri’s brief venture into publishing was even worse.
It isn’t up to the government of Malta to decide who is permitted to act as a journalist or to dictate the terms.
The Venice Commission’s 2018 assessment stressed Malta’s “international obligation” to ensure that media and civil society play unencumbered and active roles in “holding authorities accountable”.
As in so many other areas, the government feigned obedience and simpering cooperation while continuing to do what they’ve done all along: resist any form of accountability.
This is a government that likes to operate in the dark.
Earlier this week, every Labour MP on the Public Accounts Committee voted to keep the Electrogas contract secret, hidden even from the other half of parliament. Your own parliament isn’t permitted to see the details of the contract Mizzi signed in your name — but you can be sure the people of Malta will be made to honour its terms.
Also this week, Robert Abela refused to say whether he recused himself from a Cabinet decision on whether to pardon an accused hitman whose promise to turn State’s witness included providing evidence against the prime minister’s own former clients.
Journalists cannot be vetted by the people they’re supposed to be investigating or barred from their legal right to access information if they refuse to toe the line.
It’s the role of journalists to hold power to account, and it’s the duty of your elected officials to submit themselves to scrutiny.