Journalists attempting to question government ministers and hold them to account will now face an additional hurdle in doing their job as the mobile numbers of government communications coordinators have been left out of contact details on the directory featured on the government’s website for this new legislature.
Journalists in Malta are familiar with not having ministry spokespersons (who mediate between ministers and the press) reply to questions over the phone – however, a mobile contact is usually useful to follow up on questions sent to ministers via email. However, the lack of telephone numbers available may cause an additional hurdle for media trying to obtain answers to questions, especially in the case of urgency.
A quick analysis by The Shift shows that up till last year, the mobile numbers of ministry spokespersons were always available online. However, since the new legislature in March, contact with the spokespersons has been limited to email addresses. The prime minister has already become notorious for avoiding questions by the press, and it seems an additional layer of inaccessibility that stretches across all ministries has now been implemented.
Led by Edward Montebello, who served as Labour TV’s Head of News up till March, all the government’s ministers and parliamentary secretaries have recruited their own communications coordinators on a ‘person of trust’ basis.
The Shift has sent questions to the Office of the Prime Minister asking why mobile numbers have been removed from alongside the coordinators’ email addresses. No reply was received at the time of writing.
This is just the latest development in the struggle that journalists in Malta face to access information.
In February, The Shift was thrown into a legal battle after some 40 public bodies, including government ministries and entities, refused The Shift’s requests for information in the public interest and appealed the order by the Data Protection Commissioner to disclose the information. International press freedom groups said it was “emblematic of challenges” that media outlets in Malta face when accessing public information. Earlier in June, The Shift won the first four FOI appeals.
In a report by the European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) in 2020, Maltese journalists had already highlighted the difficulty they face when trying to obtain an official comment, saying they can “hardly access” the government.
Recommendations resulting from the public inquiry on the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia also included the need to create an enabling environment for independent journalism.