Data Protection Commissioner Ian Deguara has harshly criticised the Malta Tourism Authority over its “consistent confrontational attitude” in trying to undermine his decisions related to the Freedom of Information Act.
While Prime Minister Robert Abela regularly claims that “Malta’s institutions are working,” government authorities under his watch persistently try to block decisions taken by Deguara, upholding requests for the provision of data, and underpinning transparency and accountability by public authorities.
In a rare, but harsh observation made by the Commissioner in a legal reply to the latest challenge by the MTA, Deguara accused the MTA of “lack of cooperation” in investigations “which reflect the consistent attitude taken by the public authority (MTA) with regards to the office of the Data Protection Commissioner”.
The MTA is disputing a decision taken by the Commissioner ordering it to provide The Shift News with a list of sponsorships it gave to various events organisers in the past three years. The Shift asked for this data under the FOI law after the MTA refused to reply to questions on the controversial issue. Abuse in the system of granting sponsorships to well connected organisers has been reported by The Shift.
However, following the Data Protection Commissioner’s order, the MTA ignored the legal order and instead commissioned lawyer Ryan Pace, ironically one of the closest collaborators of the prime minister, to file a challenge before the Data Protection Appeals Tribunal.
In his appeal, Pace tried to circumvent the law by claiming that The Shift’s editor, Caroline Muscat, had no right to such information, quoting some legal loophole, and said that the MTA’s sharing of this information (which regards taxpayers’ funds) would reveal business secrets of the beneficiaries.
In his reply, the Data Protection Commissioner said that the MTA’s legal arguments do not hold any water even in legal jargon. The MTA is headed by lawyer and former Labour Minister Gavin Gulia.
Sources said that the MTA’s latest challenge is just another delaying tactic by the government to try to hide information from the public.
The Shift has consistently won FOI challenges from government organisations over the past few years.
In one of the most classic examples of how the government is trying to block publication of information about its questionable administration of public funds, some 40 different government entities and ministries are each, separately, challenging decisions taken by the Commissioner ordering them to reveal any contracts and payments (running into hundreds of thousands of euros) awarded to government spin doctor and owner of Malta Today, Saviour Balzan.
Apart from clogging the judicial system with all these appeals, the government continues to waste taxpayers’ funds by hiring different lawyers, loyal to the Labour Party, for every entity that challenges the Commissioner over similar decisions.
After a long legal process, the Appeals Tribunal’s chair, seasoned lawyer Anna Mallia, decided the first four cases in favour of the Commissioner and The Shift, insisting that the public had the right to know how taxpayers’ money is being administered on their behalf.