The default position for Freedom of Information (FOI) should be one where people have a right to that information and not the other way around. This was one of the principal points discussed during The Shift’s debate that was held on 5 October.
The panel, composed of The Shift’s Managing Editor Caroline Muscat, Corinne Vella from the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) International Campaign Director Rebecca Vincent, discussed the various facets of the government’s aversion toward transparency and access to information and how this affects various aspects of media freedom.
Rebecca Vincent described how RSF and other international press freedom organisations are disturbed by the deterioration of media freedom in Malta. She noted that while progress was made in some areas, Malta’s climate for freedom of information has deteriorated, particularly during Prime Minister Robert Abela’s administration.
Vincent described The Shift’s legal FOI battles with over 40 government entities as absurd and questioned why the government would go to such lengths, concluding that this tactic has less to do with hiding information but more with a point of principle to dissuade others from trying to obtain information.
Caroline Muscat also described the process of how an FOI request is made and how long it takes for entities to reply to a request, often extending the deadline for the government entity to reply. She then outlined what happens when the Information and Data Protection Commissioner rules in favour of information being released and how the government entity goes on to appeal this decision, delaying the process even further and using up a newsroom’s resources and finances.
This prevalent misuse of the FOI procedures to block or limit access to information within a reasonable time is why the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation is challenging Malta’s Freedom of Information Act (FOI) in court on the basis that the remedies it provides are unconstitutional because they do not respect the right to freedom of expression and information as explained by Corinne Vella.
Vella outlined how the case aims to limit state authorities’ arbitrary refusals to provide information in the public interest and to reverse the culture of secrecy behind their claims of privacy and commercial sensitivity, enabling public interest journalism to hold power to account.
Should the court rule in favour of the Foundation, then the FOI Act would need to be changed to no longer be abused to hide information but will be “forced to do the job and give people access to information to which they already have a right”, concluded Vella, adding that the more authorities try to block access to information, then the impression they give is that it is worth pursuing and publishing.
Vella also spoke of The Daphne Foundation’s success at obtaining a copy of Electrogas’ secret energy agreement that revealed how the Maltese government gave what was effectively an unconditional guarantee to SOCAR Trading that it would step in to cover any of Electrogas’ debts. “There can be successes, but it is an ordeal to get there”, Vella concluded.
Another recent request filed by the Foundation was for a copy of the report by the media experts’ committee to be submitted to the government about legislative amendments for media freedom, which the government had failed to table in parliament as per its own terms of reference.
While the Foundation was informed that more time would be required to handle the request, the government “then scuppered its own obfuscation” attempts by calling a press conference to announce the legislative bills for the protection of journalists and present the expert committee’s report, “which begs the question, why send that kind of reply, when you’re already lining up a press conference to publish the report yourself?”.
Rebecca Vincent replied that possibly this attitude “could be part of the hostility that we often see from this government, and this feeds into the broader climate, that’s why these sort of battles are important.”
The Shift is currently battling 42 appeals by the government on decisions by the Data Commissioner for information to be released. The government is challenging the decisions of its own appointed bodies and “has moulded the FOI Act to deny information, instead of giving it”, Muscat added.
The debate included a discussion with the public about how freedom of information ties in with the recent legislative proposals put forward by the government to protect journalism in Malta and how they have fallen short of the recommendations made by the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry.