Identity Malta gives in, reveals €56,000 to Saviour Balzan’s newspapers

Identity Malta has paid Saviour Balzan’s media house over €56,000 for advertising in five years, from 2015 to 2020, according to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request filed by The Shift.

Identity Malta is the first public entity, out of 40 government ministries and agencies resisting FOI requests filed by The Shift, to make the data available as ordered by the Information and Data Protection Commissioner.

Other entities are filing appeals for a second time – now resorting to court action to resist providing the information that both the Commissioner and the Chair of the Appeals Tribunal, Anna Mallia, have decided must be provided as the information is in the public interest.

The Shift’s FOI requests are focused on 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 information provided by Identity Malta shows how the agency, while under the political remit of disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat and then Minister Byron Camilleri, awarded over €11,000 in advertising every year to Balzan’s commercial enterprise, which publishes the Malta Today and Illum newspapers.

Identity Malta has been resisting the FOI request from The Shift since December 2020. The agency declined to hand over the information, saying it did not exist. The agency defied the Commissioner’s order to provide the information by filing an appeal at the Tribunal before agreeing to provide the information.

Identity Malta’s change of heart came about during the hearing of an appeal lodged by the same government agency. In the information provided, the agency made it clear that it did not have any public relations contracts with Saviour Balzan.

So far, 12 of the 40 appeals by government entities against the FOI rulings in The Shift’s favour have been struck down by the Data Protection Appeals Tribunal, chaired by lawyer Anna Mallia who is insisting on accountability and transparency.

Freedom of Information requests must be filed by individuals, so The Shift’s requests were all filed by Managing Editor Caroline Muscat.

The information provided by Identity Malta also shows that The Times of Malta also received the same amount of advertising, though the newspaper has a wider circulation than Balzan’s.

So far, only Identity Malta has acceded to the Data Protection Commissioner’s order, with the rest of the government agencies and ministries digging in their heels to keep the payments they awarded Balzan’s business entities hidden from public scrutiny.

Hiring expensive lawyers paid for by taxpayers, the government has now launched a SLAPP campaign (vexatious and financially-crippling lawsuits against journalists) to stifle The Shift’s operations, forcing the small media house to defend its position before the court of appeal against more than 40 lawyers the government has deployed to hide information that should be in the public domain.

The Shift has appealed to the public to support the fight in court for access to information, reaching its target within only three days.

The search for information about Balzan’s dependence on government contracts and payments was started by The Shift in December 2020 following revelations in court by Keith Schembri, the former Chief of Staff at the Office of the Prime Minister.

Schembri exposed him as a lobbyist, regularly begging him for contracts and taxpayer-funded television programmes on TVM.

One of Saviour Balzan’s infamous posts defending the government’s line when he was in France and in no position to verify the information Daphne Caruana Galizia had reported on Egrant. The presence of the safe was later confirmed.

From the few replies received from government entities, it has been established that Balzan, personally and through his business entities, had a number of contracts with different ministers and government entities to provide public relations services, including providing advice on how to deal with difficult questions from the media.

Controversial ministers include Foreign Affairs Minister Ian Borg, revealed by The Times of Malta, and former justice minister Edward Zammit Lewis who The Shift revealed awarded Balzan a €20,000 direct order in 2020 for advice on how to act in public, and prepare responses to political statements and criticism, among other duties. The contract renewed the previous one.

Balzan was also given several publicly-funded television programmes on PBS. Other competing current affairs programmes were meanwhile axed, leaving Balzan in a dominant position to dictate the agenda and promote his clients in government.

Eleven international press freedom organisations have condemned the legal proceedings by the government against The Shift, burdening it with hefty legal expenses to defend the public’s right to know how public funds are being spent, and what influence that may have on the news delivered by the independent media.

“Our organisations condemn these legal proceedings aimed at weakening Malta’s independent press and call for them to be immediately dropped. The Maltese government must instead comply with its FOI obligations and take immediate steps to improve freedom of information and press freedom in the country.”

The Shift is the only media outlet with a policy of refusing any advertising or funds from the government or political parties.

                           
                               
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Out of Curiosity
Out of Curiosity
1 month ago

Identity Malta has made the first step and a one in the right direction. We all hope that others will follow this good example.

Winston Smith
Winston Smith
1 month ago

Salvu requires a safe in every room. I can confirm. @poplugahan @taxedlies

KLAUS
KLAUS
1 month ago

UNITED – Strong together.
For the future of our children.

Thank you Caroline Muscat.


Francis Said
Francis Said
1 month ago

Well done, keep up your efforts.

Bamboccu
Bamboccu
1 month ago

Flus………XTRA…bhal u mal programm.
Ja mdejjaq.

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