The Shift wins first four FOI appeals by government to hide payments to Saviour Balzan

The Shift is fighting 40 appeals by the government to overrule the Data Protection Commissioner's decision to grant the information.

 

Tista’ taqra l-artiklu bil-Malti hawn.

The Shift has won the first four Freedom of Information (FOI) appeals, out of a total of 40, instituted by government in its attempt to block the media from access to public information on deals struck with Media Today co-owner Saviour Balzan.

The Information and Data Protection Appeals Tribunal, headed by seasoned lawyer Anna Mallia, has backed The Shift’s call for more transparency and accountability over how the government is spending taxpayers’ funds and has ordered the relevant government entities to reveal all details around the tens of thousands of euros in payments given to Balzan, also in his capacity as a spin doctor for various ministers.

In its first four decisions  – out of the 40 challenges that The Shift is battling thanks to a crowdfunding campaign supported by readers –  the Appeals Tribunal threw out all the contestations made by the Malta Film Commission, LESA, Resource, Recovery and Recycling Agency, and the Malta Council for Science and Technology, and instructed them to give The Shift all the requested information.

In its decision, the Tribunal said the information sought by The Shift concerns the way public entities are spending taxpayers’ funds, and therefore it is in the interest of the public to know how its money is being spent and for what reason.

Following revelations in court by Keith Schembri, the former Chief of Staff of disgraced former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who described Saviour Balzan as “more of a lobbyist than a journalist” who was always “begging for contracts from the government,” The Shift filed FOI requests to all government ministries and entities to verify Schembri’s declarations.

While most of the government entities refused to give any information regarding payments and direct orders worth tens of thousands of euros, The Shift discovered that Balzan, the owner of an ostensibly independent media house, was also doubling as a PR consultant to a long list of serving ministers.

In those roles, his tasks included coaching government politicians on handling the media and reviewing their statements.

A tweet by Saviour Balzan to discredit Daphne Caruana Galizia’s reports on Egrant when he was in no position to confirm anything because he was in his chateau in France.

From the data available at the time, The Shift revealed that Balzan and his companies raked in over 1 million from public coffers offering his services to government ministers and departments, including publishing “positive content” in his newspapers and presenting an ‘independent’ current affairs show on PBS, in which he also interviews his own clients.

The Shift challenged the many ministries’ and government departments’ refusals to share the relevant information via a series of Freedom of Information requests. All The Shift’s claims were upheld by the Data Protection Commissioner, who ordered each of the entities to release the requested information.

As Data Commissioner Ian Deguara pointed out in defence of his decision, the FOI act is “designed to ensure the greatest possible transparency and promote accountability in public authorities, by enabling to the extent possible, the exercise of the right of access to documents held by the public authorities”.

“The fact that persons and companies are being paid by public funds certainly leads to the expectation that the public has to know where the money went, to whom, and why,” he said.

However, instead of complying with the order and releasing the information, the government entities, in a coordinated move clearly intended to intimidate The Shift and inundate its resources, used the services of dozens of lawyers – all paid by taxpayers – to fight back and shut down a single journalist.

Every single entity contested the decision of the Data Commissioner, filing 40 identical appeals while further postponing the revelation of the compromising data.

The government’s actions to ‘defend’ the owner of an independent outlet were registered as a threat to press freedom by international press freedom organisations.

Balzan was handpicked by the government to sit on the ‘media experts committee‘ set up to implement the recommendations of the public inquiry on journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination – the same journalist Balzan had dubbed as “the queen of bile”.

The first four of the 40 appeals have now been quashed by Anna Mallia. Decisions on the rest of the appeals are expected in the coming weeks.

All the entities still have the option of presenting an appeal to the Tribunal’s decision in court, which would see these 40 cases drag on for years while the government continues to squander taxpayer money to hide its relationship with Saviour Balzan.

Apart from being a co-owner of Media Today, the publisher of Malta Today, Illum and their digital news platforms, while having the privilege to produce several programmes for the public broadcaster, Balzan also set up two media business entities in his own name, Business 2 Business and Pegasus Media, whose income is also largely driven by government handouts.

Balzan offers ministers PR, surveys, coaching and positive content, according to contracts seen by The Shift. Meanwhile, he claims to have set up ‘what is probably the only independent newsroom in the country’, while using his portals to discredit other journalists and critics of the government. 

The Shift also revealed that Balzan was granted a government factory in Mosta to use as a TV studio, despite it being in an industrial estate where premises allocated are intended for manufacturing. Despite the privilege, the government even slashed Balzan’s already subsidised lease payment to just 1 a month ostensibly as a mitigation measure around the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Shift is being represented in all these legal challenges by BCGL Advocates lawyers Andrew Borg Cardona and Matthew Cutajar who are providing their services pro bono.

                           
                               
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Francis Said
Francis Said
3 days ago

Well done. Keep up the pressure on full transparency and accountability.

James
James
3 days ago

Of course they will appeal the decision because that is the way things are done in Malta. They will appoint a “ friendly” member of the judiciary who will overturn the decision and then they will carry on unperturbed as usual.

Just another day in “ beautiful “ Malta!

KLAUS
KLAUS
3 days ago

Perversion of justice:

A. In no normal democracy would the government have filed even ONE lawsuit. 

B . In a normal democracy, all 40 court cases would be consolidated into one proceeding.

C. At the end of the year, the statistics show that 40 judgments were made here alone. In fact, it is like an engine running at high speed and idling. 

ROBBER Abela in top form. What income is generated here for lawyers?

viv
viv
3 days ago

A government adopting brute-force tactics is never a good image. I’m thinking Tiananmen.

Godfrey Leone Ganado
Godfrey Leone Ganado
3 days ago

“There is no safe in the Pilatus kitchen” – Saviour Balzan.
If he knows how to read, he will find this statement being given the lie, by Pilatus employees who testified in the Egrant inquiry.
As regards FOI requests, well done on rightfully winning the first four cases, and good luck for the rest.

KD Far
KD Far
2 days ago

There is no independent media in Malta. Fullstop.

KLAUS
KLAUS
2 days ago
Reply to  KD Far

Just one: The Shift News.

Robert
Robert
2 days ago

GoV obstructing to its own Laws? Those Heads of department are a shame for this country and should resign. State liability should be actionned as it is obviously a given order from the GoV to stand against the Laws.

Mario Borg
Mario Borg
19 hours ago

This all boils down to a grossly corrupt Government

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