International Press Institute urges reform to Freedom of Information Act, supports legal challenge

The International Press Institute (IPI) has expressed its support for the legal challenge brought against the Freedom of Information Act by the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation and a team of Public Interest Litigation Network (PILN) lawyers.

IPI, an association of media professionals representing leading digital, print and broadcast news outlets, said journalists seeking to access public information and data under the Freedom of Information Act have long faced obstacles and unnecessary barriers and that reform is required.

Malta’s Freedom of Information Act (FOI) is being challenged on the basis that the remedies it provides are unconstitutional because they do not respect the right to freedom of expression and information.

The case, filed last week, is the first ever to challenge the law and the misuse of its procedures to block or limit access to information in the public interest within a reasonable time, the foundation said.

“The case aims to limit state authorities’ arbitrary refusals to provide information in the public interest and to reverse the culture of secrecy behind their claims of privacy and commercial sensitivity, enabling public interest journalism to hold power to account,” the foundation said.

The court case is based on FOI requests about a secret agreement, signed by former energy minister Konrad Mizzi on behalf of the Malta Government and by SOCAR Trading SA, and for a report on the feasibility of a second interconnector to Malta.

The energy ministry had refused both requests on questionable grounds.

IPI is one of several international press freedom organisations that closely monitor the developments in connection with the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia as well as threats to press freedom in Malta.

In February, the international organisation, together with several others had voiced concerns that Malta’s current FOI legislation is being abused to obstruct requests and obfuscate the disclosure of public information after The Shift revealed it was facing an unprecedented number of appeals by 40 government entities and entities against a decision by the Information and Data Protection Commissioner.

The commissioner had ordered the disclosure of information requested by The Shift about possible contracts and payments made by public entities to Malta Today co-owner Saviour Balzan and his commercial entities.

The IPI had noted in a statement that “reforms are needed to first make the judicial process for FOI appeals less cumbersome and secondly to remove the right of public authorities to appeal an order granting the commissioner the right to access a document as part of the commissioner’s decision on whether or not it should be released. Enacting such changes would make significant improvements to the system for freedom of information and help support watchdog journalism in Malta”.

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