Abela’s tax on information

Anything too stupid to say, said Voltaire, must be sung. Is there no one who can set to music our prime minister’s refrains about his government’s so-called democratic reforms?

The idea must have already occurred to someone at Castille. We have 40 government and state entities singing from the same hymn sheet as they resist The Shift’s Freedom of Information (FOI) requests on all contracts given to Saviour Balzan since 2013.

It’s more than just resistance. It’s active hostility. The government is attempting to cripple investigative journalism with paralysing legal costs.

Running into the tens of thousands of euros, those costs have been imposed by Robert Abela’s government because it insists on fighting The Shift’s FOI requests in court, even though, in the dozen cases heard so far, both the Data Protection Commissioner and the Appeals Tribunal Chair, Anna Mallia, have found in favour of The Shift.

We’re seeing Robert Abela’s true colours. The matter goes beyond the particular case of Balzan. There is perfect continuity with the attitudes of Joseph Muscat’s government towards investigative journalists. It’s the stratagems that are different.

Under Muscat, there were numerous attempts to cripple Daphne Caruana Galizia financially. The stratagem: suing her multiple times, using criminal libel, and blocking her bank accounts.

Abela now claims credit for protecting journalists from Labour ministers. Criminal libel is no longer possible. Abela also distances himself from strategic lawsuits (SLAPP) so prohibitively expensive that even established media houses could go bankrupt trying to mount a defence.

Instead, however, Abela has instituted something that amounts to the same thing in practice.

Under Abela, a minister no longer sues a journalist. But journalists are forced to pay high legal fees to fight the appeals that government ministers and other entities file in court.

And if you need information from 40 different entities, you need to fight 40 different cases. And pay 40 different sets of fees.

Under the criminal libel law, the ministers suing you had their expenses paid by the State. Now, government-paid lawyers, with no financial limits, will be taking on The Shift, with its limited operational budget.

Besides the money, lots of work is needed to prepare for those cases. It’s energy deflected from other journalistic work to hold government to account.

It’s a stratagem to exhaust journalists — financially, psychologically and morally. In this case, it’s The Shift. But all journalists are expected to learn the appropriate lesson.

Journalists work in the public interest. In being hostile to investigative journalism, this government is expressing its hostility to the public’s right to know and to hold it accountable. An antipathy to journalism is an antipathy to democracy.

Effectively, Abela has levied a tax on information. You need to pay through your nose, and with your lifeblood, to get information that should be yours by right.

It’s part of an established pattern. Journalists had to pay the Electoral Commission, by the page, for the financial records filed by this year’s general election candidates. And that wasn’t half of it.

First, the Commission stonewalled the journalists asking if every candidate had filed on time. Then it got journalists to pay €350 just to get copies of the documents. Then it refused to say how it verified the often vague or suspicious filings.

The government knows knowledge is power. It taxes information in the hope you will refuse to pay for it. This tax is meant to disempower the public.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Golden Labour used to requisition private property for its cronies — until too many people were cheated and the tide turned. Post-2013, the stratagem changed.

Now it’s public property we own in common that is requisitioned. ODZ areas are spoils for friends. Parcels of the sea and pavements and other public areas are, effectively, privatised.

And, now, public information is taxed. You can only get it if you have the stamina and the funds for a long, bitter fight.

That’s why The Shift’s FOI requests are a critical test case for Abela’s new stratagem in the wake of the universal European condemnation of the old “technique” of bankrupting journalists.

The international NGOs, including those of professional journalists, see this clearly and they’re raising hell. The Institute of Maltese Journalists (IGM) remains silent — a lack of appreciation, in my view, that the interests of all journalists are at stake.

We have to decide whether to throw up our hands and submit. Or to insist the government has to face the music of democracy and dance to its tune.

                           
                               
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Saviour Mamo
Saviour Mamo
1 month ago

We will soon have to be prepared to face imprisonment to defend our democratic rights and freedom.

D. Borg
D. Borg
1 month ago

Not sure who is worse,

Abela trying to save his & his lackeys’ extravagances,

or the IGM relinquishing their raison d’etre

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