At least 29 government entities, ranging from the Education Ministry and the Gozo Ministry to Identity Malta and Projects Malta (Malta Strategic Partnership Projects), are appealing the Data Protection Commissioner’s decision to provide information on payments made to Media Today’s Saviour Balzan, each mounting their own separate challenge.
One by one, the 29 entities (and counting) filed virtually identical appeals pushing back on the Commissioner’s decision to grant the information in the public interest regarding the use of public funds.
Though the Commissioner’s orders were based on the Freedom of Information Act and previous court judgements, the government has refused to comply and is instead challenging the authority of the Data Protection Commissioner to issue such orders.
This is an unprecedented move that raises serious questions about why the government is so reluctant to publish details about Balzan’s contracts.
The Shift has already revealed that Balzan has received at least €1 million in government contracts under Labour, reporting that this was only the tip of the iceberg.
Following the publication of the findings, government entities started to object to the Data Protection Commissioner’s decision that they should also provide information on tens of thousands of euro payments made to Balzan and his commercial entities.
This implies that each of these entities has used the services of Balzan who, while claiming to have established “the only independent newsroom” in the country, has been offering consultancy services to ministers – who then appear in his publications, including Malta Today and Illum, and his TV programmes on the public broadcasting service itself funded by taxpayers.
Those services include advising members of government on how to deal with the media in difficult circumstances, according to contracts seen by The Shift.
The 29 appeals by government entities are now all being heard by the Appeal Tribunal. The Shift has submitted its response to the Tribunal, arguing that the requests were entirely legitimate in that they concern the expenditure of public funds.
The Shift made a series of FOI requests to ask ministries and public authorities to release contracts and lists of payments made to Saviour Balzan and his companies since Labour was returned to power in 2013.
This was also partially confirmed when accused money launderer Keith Schembri – the chief of staff of disgraced former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and reportedly one of Balzan’s sources – was reported to have said in court that the owner of Malta Today was more of a lobbyist than a journalist, regularly requesting government handouts including through TV programmes with the public broadcaster.
While most of The Shift’s requests were immediately shot down by the government, which claimed that the data requested did not exist, this news portal asked the Commissioner for Data Protection to look into the matter. Following a thorough investigation, the Commissioner found it was not true that the data was unavailable and ordered all the government ministries and authorities to divulge the information.
Still, the government refused, claiming that the Data Protection Commissioner was not entitled to issue such an order and instead mounted a coordinated legal challenge, attacking the commissioner’s position and in effect protecting Balzan.
Unlike The Shift – the only newsroom in Malta which refuses to take any advertising or sponsored content from the government or public agencies – mainstream newsrooms have become heavily dependent on government advertising for their survival.
In addition to the advertising received from the government, Balzan has established himself as a PR consultant contracted by different ministries and government agencies, setting up a network of commercial vehicles through which he cashes in on contracts, which are often direct orders.
Balzan claims he has resigned – twice – from his involvement in his newspapers, but he retains his columns and his obvious influence.
Balzan’s close connections with those in power, though still ostensibly working as a journalist, are not new. He is known to have been paid to support a number of political campaigns over the years, including that of disgraced former European Commissioner John Dalli’s bid for the PN leadership and Malta’s entry into the EU.