The government has been dealt seven more blows in its attempts to block information about how it is using taxpayer money to fund propaganda in the independent media.
The Freedom of Information (FOI) Appeals Tribunal has ruled in another seven cases being appealed by the government that information being requested by The Shift must be made public.
In its latest series of decisions, the Tribunal, chaired by lawyer Anna Mallia, struck down appeals from seven more government entities that have steadfastly refused The Shift’s FOI requests.
These are: the Armed Forces of Malta, the Centre for Creativity, the Planning Authority and Ministers Miriam Dalli (Energy), Clint Camilleri (Gozo), Roderick Galdes (Social Accommodation) and Clayton Bartolo (Tourism).
The Tribunal ruled they had no valid reason to refuse the requests and that doing so was contrary to their public obligation to be transparent and accountable. The Tribunal has ordered them to provide the information to The Shift without further delay.
The legal process involved in battling the government for information that is meant to be public is complicated and costly, and the way in which the government is going about The Shift’s FOI requests is tantamount to Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) – cases intended to cripple newsrooms financially with the aim of silencing journalists.
These latest seven rulings are among the 40 appeals the government has filed against The Shift’s Freedom of Information requests on how taxpayer funds were being used for public relations consultancies supplied by the co-owner of MediaToday, Saviour Balzan, who advises ministers and government departments on how to handle the media.
In each of these 40 cases, The Shift has requested information on Balzan’s engagement by government entities.
Each entity refused the respective requests but was ordered to hand over the information when The Shift brought the refusals to the attention of the Information and Data Protection Commissioner for a ruling.
Still refusing to make the information available as ordered, each entity then brought their cases before the Freedom of Information Appeals Tribunal, which is slowly but surely deciding those cases in favour of The Shift and the public interest.
The Appeals Tribunal has so far struck down 18 of these appeals, with more expected to be decided in the coming days.
But once the FOI Appeals Tribunal strikes down their cases, each government entity is then taking their appeals to court and, in the process – effectively fighting against its own Freedom of Information law in Malta while bragging about it in international fora.
Five such court appeals have been lodged by the government so far as a last-ditch effort to gatekeep information, and The Shift is facing the prospect of another 35 court cases.
The government’s rounds of appeals mean it could take years before the public can have the information The Shift is rightfully seeking on its behalf, as the repeated Tribunal rulings have already confirmed.
In still further attempts to SLAPP The Shift and make it drop its line of questioning, the government is adding on potential expenses by assigning lawyers, sometimes two per case, to fend off the requests of a single journalist.
Through contracts revealed by the press, it has already emerged that Balzan has been paid over €1 million from state coffers for public relations services for various ministers, including coaching and the writing of their press releases.
This means that when Minister Ian Borg’s back was up against the wall because of criticism over the Central Link project, Balzan, erstwhile the owner of the MaltaToday newspaper, was doing his public relations, The Times of Malta had revealed.
Former Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis has now been relegated to the backbenches, but he had also used Balzan’s public relations services when minister.
Balzan also forms part of the so-called ‘media experts committee’ tasked with drawing up recommendations on the sector’s reform as outlined in the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry.
Journalists across different newsrooms have written to the prime minister calling out the government’s lack of transparency and distancing themselves from any decisions being taken by the committee. They have also written to the prime minister demanding the recommendations are published before they are tabled in parliament.
The number of appeals The Shift has been forced to defend risked crippling it financially. But the government’s latest attempt to silence The Shift has backfired spectacularly, with The Shift managing to crowdfund the required court expenses in under 48 hours, while BCGL Advocates is offering The Shift legal defence services pro bono. The Shift has also received funding from the Media Freedom Rapid Response Unit to fight back against these cases.
Eleven international press freedom organisations have supported The Shift’s stand and called on the government to drop the cases.
“The continued efforts by the government to needlessly challenge these decisions and drag out the process is inexplicable and seriously undermines transparency and the freedom of the press. We are concerned these coordinated appeals are also aimed at draining The Shift of time and resources that could otherwise be spent carrying out public service reporting,” the International Press Institute’s Deputy Director Scott Griffen said in a statement.
The Shift will be holding a debate on the Right to Know on 5 October. The Shift founder Caroline Muscat will be joined by Rebecca Vincent, International Campaign Director for Reporters Without Borders, and Corinne Vella from the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation, which has filed a constitutional case for reform of the FOI Act. Please register to attend.