A further 10 government entities, including several ministries, have joined the effort to continue concealing payments made to government spin doctor and owner of Malta Today, Saviour Balzan, and have challenged in court the decision by the Data Protection Commissioner ordering the release of this information to The Shift under the Freedom of Information (FOI) rules.
In the latest coordinated effort by the government to hide payments of tens of thousands of taxpayer euros to Balzan and his media outlets, the 10 additional government entities have followed the 30 others who’ve already filed appeals challenging the decision of the Commissioner.
The Shift is already fighting 30 appeals launched by government bodies to prevent it from seeking information about how taxpayers’ funds are being funnelled to Balzan.
Using separate lawyers, increasing legal expenses that are also being taken out of taxpayers’ funds, the Finance Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Economy Ministry, the Family Ministry, the Environment Ministry, the Energy Ministry, the Tourism Ministry, the National and Social Development Fund (NSDF), the Police Corps and the Environment and Resources Authority have all asked the Data Protection Appeals Tribunal to nullify the Commissioner’s order to make available data on all payments they gave Balzan and his companies, Media Today and Business 2 Business.
In their appeals, the state entities claim they are not obliged to provide this information as ordered, arguing that the FOI law does not require them to compile lists but only to provide specific documents.
However, the Data Protection Commissioner has defended his position, insisting that the FOI law is all about transparency and accountability and that since taxpayers’ funds are involved, the public has the right to access the necessary information and keep the government in check.
Originally, The Shift had asked government ministries and entities to make available copies of consultancy contracts and payments made to Saviour Balzan and his media arms following information received that he was acting as a PR consultant to the government while posing as an ‘independent’ journalist and media owner.
While most of the government bodies replied that they had no such information, an investigation by the Data Protection Commissioner found that this was not true and that the entities involved, including most of the government’s ministries, were paying Balzan and his companies for various services, including the writing of press releases by his companies’ staff.
After the Commissioner’s order obliging the various ministries and government departments to provide this information to The Shift, in accordance with the FOI law, the 30 entities launched an appeal, challenging the Commissioner’s decision and continuing to refuse to publish the information. They have now been joined by another 10.
The Shift revealed in October that Saviour Balzan and his companies have been paid more than a million euros in direct orders from taxpayers’ funds for various services provided to the government that are completely unrelated to journalism. These include contracts for Balzan’s personal services to coach individual ministers in dealing with the media and responding to adverse political situations, contrary to ethical journalism rules. He was also paid to use his newspapers to publish ‘positive content’.
Balzan’s habit of ‘begging’ for contracts from the government was also exposed in court by his own former informer, Keith Schembri – the shamed former chief of staff at the OPM currently facing a raft of fraud and money laundering charges – who exposed Balzan as “more of a lobbyist than a journalist, regularly requesting government handouts including through TV programmes with the public broadcaster”.
Soon after Labour was returned to power in 2013, Balzan was given a number of lucrative TV slots on PBS, through which he rakes in thousands of taxpayer euros every week, to produce programmes despite the fact that they consistently score badly in terms of audience results in surveys conducted by the Broadcasting Authority.
He was also awarded prime time viewing slots for a discussion programme, while other current affairs programmes with much higher audience ratings, such as Xarabank and l-Erbgħa Fost il-Gimgħa, were axed, leaving Balzan to benefit from the best commercial TV slots available, while eliminating the competition.
Recently, The Shift also reported that Balzan was given a government factory in Mosta, supposedly to use as a TV studio. His intention was to produce TV programmes, subsidised by PBS. While the premises, originally intended for manufacturing, is not yet in operation, the government has slashed Balzan’s subsidised lease payment to just €1 a month, excluding VAT, ostensibly as a mitigation measure around the Covid-19 pandemic. However, no other companies using government factories appear to have been given the same relief on their lease payments.