Government launches new attempt to cripple The Shift with FOI appeals

Tista’ taqra dan l-artiklu bil-Malti hawn

The government has launched its latest coordinated campaign attempting to financially cripple The Shift by filing a series of appeal lawsuits challenging, for the second time, decisions by the Data Protection Commissioner and subsequently the Appeals Tribunal in favour of transparency and accountability.

The Shift is still battling, at the Appeals Tribunal, 40 government entities challenging the Commissioner’s decision to grant information requested by The Shift in Freedom of Information requests. Tribunal Chair Anna Mallia has ruled on 12 of those cases, all in favour of the Commissioner and The Shift.

Mallia ruled that since all these entities are financed through public funds, taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent.

Yet, each government entity is now appealing a second time, this time in court, resulting in tens of thousands of euros the newsroom needs to raise to defend its right to access the information in the public interest.

A year has passed since the Commissioner ruled in favour of The Shift. Yet the government has deployed more than 40 lawyers against a single journalist (Freedom of Information requests must be filed by individuals, so The Shift’s requests were all filed by The Shift’s Managing Editor Caroline Muscat).

“While we continue to fight the cases at the Appeals Tribunal, each case we win is now being appealed a second time. One by one, they are now all going to court repeating the same arguments already dismissed by both the Data Protection Commissioner and the Appeals Tribunal. It’s a massive waste of taxpayer money to block information that should be given because it concerns the expenditure of public funds,” Muscat said.

Muscat pointed out that while Prime Minister Robert Abela was boasting that he would enact legislation against Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs – financially crippling lawsuits against journalists) the government was mounting precisely such lawsuits itself against an investigative news portal holding it to account.

“This is about wearing us down and draining our resources, so we are unable to do our work in the public interest. It is clear that when Robert Abela talks about supporting the free press, he means only the press that says things of which he approves,” she added.

This battle has been ongoing since December 2020, when The Shift filed a set of Freedom of Information requests for a list of contracts and/or payments, including direct orders, entered into between different government entities as well as ministries with Media Today co-owner Saviour Balzan or any of his private companies since 2013.

The request is focused on the use of public funds and the public interest need for transparency in the operations of the independent media with the government. Contracts have already been revealed that show Saviour Balzan, while acting as editor and columnist at his newspapers and presenting several publicly-funded TV programmes on PBS, was advising ministers on how to deal with the media on controversial projects and scandals.

The government has deployed over 40 lawyers, including Charlon Gouder, and Joe Gerada of Acapulco fame who said our questions amounted to harassment of public officials and filed a request for the court to ban The Shift. While the government is using public funds to block the information, the cost of tens of thousands in court and legal fees for The Shift to fight back are prohibitive.

The appeals court is the last stage where the government can defy the release of information. It is very rare that an FOI request that has been lost twice – first before the Data Protection Commissioner and then before the Appeals Tribunal – is taken to court. The Shift faces the possibility that this will happen with all 40 cases currently being decided by the Tribunal.

In the first of what is expected to be a raft of identical appeals of the Tribunal’s decisions, Wasteserv, through its lawyers Charlon Gouder and Marc Sant, objected to the decision by the Tribunal Chair to uphold the Commissioner’s order for full transparency on tens of thousands of euros in payments from state coffers to Saviour Balzan and his companies. Another four appeals have already been filed in court.

One of our lawyers, Andrew Borg-Cardona, expressed his bemusement as to how the government, through its assorted manifestations, was appealing against the decisions of institutions appointed by the government itself. “At this rate, we’re going to witness the Peppone-esque spectacle of the government suing itself,” he added, referencing Don Camillo’s Little Valley of the Po.

Other lawyers consulted by The Shift said the government’s decision to ignore, twice, a decision for more transparency and accountability by public authorities “goes much beyond its legal and democratic ramifications”.

“These are futile but expensive lawsuits which will pressure The Shift to spend many thousands in court registry fees and to provide for costs in the event the appeals go against them. It is evident that the government is getting annoyed at The Shift’s quality of distinctive investigative journalism and wants to put it in a position where it cannot function any longer,” a legal analyst said.

He stressed, “While the government uses taxpayers’ funds abusively to mount these legal challenges, it knows that the small media organisation doesn’t have the resources to fight back as it depends on crowdfunding.”

The Shift is appealing to the public to support its work by launching a crowdfunding campaign to raise the necessary funds to fight back and defend the public’s right to know.

                           
                               
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KLAUS
KLAUS
11 days ago

MAFIA by ROBBER Abela!
Shame on you!

Last edited 11 days ago by KLAUS
Paul Vella
Paul Vella
11 days ago

Sorry but I refuse to allow my monies (tax payer’s) to be used in silencing The Shift or any other press House for that matter. It is the public’s right to know where our public funds are going.

carlos
10 days ago
Reply to  Paul Vella

Not untill we go down in the streets.

viv
viv
11 days ago

Donated… and will donate again. Down with dictatorship!

David
David
11 days ago

We are certainly a Mafia State.

Greed
Greed
11 days ago

SB obviously has something to hide or he would have given all the proof of his innocence to the shift if he wasn’t guilty but at the same time it is maybe Robber who has a lot to hide as most people fuelled by greed couldn’t careless who knows that they are corrupt,just look at the profiles on FB of them flaunting there wealth and illegal gains?

carlos
10 days ago
Reply to  Greed

And we
As a corrupt nation leave them enjoying their illicit wealth.

Vic
Vic
11 days ago

Where is FATF and all those. EU institutions safeguarding against Freedom of Expression, Rule of Law and Abuse of Power?

James
James
11 days ago
Reply to  Vic

Doing what they all do… say the right things and then stand back and watch them totally ignore their solemn undertakings that they will be good boys now. They’re no better than covert facilitators. Stop the flow of money from which they fund their scams and that might achieve more than the vapid words.

Ġwanni Fenek
Ġwanni Fenek
11 days ago

Tajtha d-donazzjoni. Dal-gvern tirann ma jistax jieħu li rrid.

Komplu olqtuhom fil-laħam il-ħaj.

Henry Pace
11 days ago

A govt in distress. Nothing to add any further

Duncan Robinson
Duncan Robinson
11 days ago

– President John F. Kennedy
Address, “The President and the Press,”
– given before the American Newspaper Publishers Association
Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York City
April 27, 1961

Mario F.
Mario F.
11 days ago

How much of my taxes are currently going to fight freedom of information requests? Do I need to launch a FOI request to find out?

saviour mamo
saviour mamo
11 days ago

Democracy is at stake. It is a serious matter and should be brought to the attention of the European Parliament.

Francis Said
Francis Said
11 days ago

The conclusion is one. Our Democracy, real democracy is in tatters.
What a shame to our Country, we all deserve better irrespective of one’s political alliance.
What a shame.

carlos
10 days ago
Reply to  Francis Said

Di we really deserve any better – think not otherwise we should have been on the streets since the first scandal which costed the Maltese honest taxpayers 4.5 MILLION EUROS.

Aggie
Aggie
11 days ago

Keep up the good work, you know you’re speaking the truth when the higher ups start pooping buttons and trying to shut you up. 😀

carlos
10 days ago

SHAME ON YOU PUPPET.

Out of Curiosity
Out of Curiosity
10 days ago

Saviour Balzan is an opportunist, and has no shame to follow nasty politicians who can feed him well. Right now he is spoilt for choice!
Our democracy is in jeopardy and until we go to the streets, no one will be capable to stop this totalitarian Gov. We (the people) have the power to change things but someone has to take the lead.

Amanda DeBono
Amanda DeBono
4 hours ago

It turns out that PM Robbert Abela is following in the footsteps of his predecessors. Expect more cover-ups and more corruption of the first degree.

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