Updated to include the reaction of the European Federation of Journalists and MEP David Casa.
In a letter sent to the Speaker of the House, The Shift has pointed out that the refusal to allow access to the tax declarations of MPs to its journalists is in clear violation of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The letter, sent also to the Whips of both political parties on 27 January, followed the rejection of a request by The Shift to be given the tax declarations of MPs, which are available to members of the press. No acknowledgement has been received.
Speaker Anglu Farrugia denied the request based on an email sent by the Department of Information (DOI) that falls under the Prime Minister’s Office. In the email, DOI Head Paul Azzopardi informed the Speaker’s Office that, “The press registry has no entries regarding Ms Caroline Muscat being registered as Editor of The Shift News”.
Yet according to the provisions of the Media and Defamation Law, introduced with great pomp by the Labour government in April 2018, media houses do not need to register with the DOI.
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. The Media and Defamation Act clearly states that media houses, like The Shift, are not obliged to register with the Media Registrar.
The Speaker’s stand is barring The Shift’s journalists from accessing information required to conduct its investigations in the public interest, Managing Editor Caroline Muscat pointed out.
The European Federation of Journalists has come out in support of The Shift’s stand, with General Secretary Ricardo Gutiérrez calling on the Maltese authorities to guarantee access to public documents for the sake of transparency.
— Ricardo Gutiérrez (@Molenews1) February 23, 2021
In its letter, The Shift based its objection on a number of points – firstly, that the Income Tax Management Act needs to be updated to reflect the philosophy ushered in by the Media and Defamation Act of 2018.
“From the reply of the DOI to the Clerk of the House following our request for such access, it clearly transpires not only that the current law is flawed, but also that the DOI still refers to a press register (which should no longer be in existence) and thus hangs on to a legal requirement that has since been repealed,” Muscat argued.
“We reiterate that according to the Media and Defamation Act, registration is voluntary and that news organisations that are not registered should not be arbitrarily excluded from DOI press releases or from accessing information,” the letter adds.
Muscat also noted that the Income Tax Management Act’s language is discriminatory by still referring to “newspapers”, which implies that only editors of newspapers may obtain such information. Although in 2018 the legislator finally recognised online news outlets, this excuse is still being used.
The exclusion of online media houses that do not opt to register flies in the face of the philosophy underlying media freedom, Muscat said. MEP David Casa has also publicly supported The Shift’s stand, saying “once again the government is showing complete disdain to the press, now even resorting to hiding behind non-existent laws to defend the indefensible”.
Accountability and transparency mean nothing to @RobertAbela_MT. Once again, @MaltaGov showing complete disdain to the press, now even resorting to hiding behind non-existent laws to defend the indefensible.
— David Casa (@DavidCasaMEP) February 23, 2021
The exclusion and pressure by the Executive on media houses to join the press register go against the Council of Europe’s recommendations that refer to the arbitrary use of administrative measures, such as registration and accreditation schemes by governments as harassment of journalists, for the purpose of frustrating their ability to contribute effectively to public debate.
This has a “chilling effect” on press freedom, the Council of Europe said.
“The Shift has every intention of challenging this discriminatory law and practice and a consequent affront to media freedom, using the means available to it, in order to ensure that The Shift’s journalists are able to perform their journalistic duties and to safeguard the public’s right to know,” Muscat concluded.
The issue was also 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.