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.
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.