Six more public entities take The Shift to appeals court in FOI request denials

On Friday, just as the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner was coming down hard on Prime Minister Robert Abela over his government’s multiple SLAPP lawsuits against The Shift, six more government entities filed new court appeals.

The latest additions to the SLAPP action lawsuits are: the Armed Forces of Malta, the Planning Authority, the Ministry for Tourism and Consumer Protection, the Ministry for Social Accommodation, the Ministry for Energy, Enterprise and Sustainable Development and the Ministry for Gozo.

The Shift is not exactly asking for State secrets. Yet the State is mustering its formidable legal clout against one small newsroom asking simple questions in the public interest and in line with the government’s own law.

A total of 40 government entities are flatly and steadfastly refusing to provide any details of their business arrangements with Media Today or on how taxpayer funds have been used for public relations consultancies supplied by its owner Saviour Balzan, who advises ministers and government departments on how to handle the media when his government clients are in a tight corner.

The legal process involved in battling the government for information meant to be public is complicated and costly, and the way in which the government is going about denying The Shift’s FOI requests is tantamount to nothing short of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) – cases intended to cripple newsrooms financially to silence journalists.

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović slammed the Maltese government this week, referring to the 40 appeals against The Shift, saying: “I call on you and all Maltese authorities to ensure that journalists and the public have access to accurate and timely information and that exceptions to the rule of public disclosure are interpreted and applied narrowly.”

In each of the 40 cases, each entity refused the respective information requests from The Shift but was ordered to hand over the information when the refusals were brought to the attention of the IDPC for a ruling.

Still refusing to make the information available as ordered by the Commissioner, each entity brought its case 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 Tribunal has so far ruled in The Shift’s favour in 18 of the 40 appeals, while another 22 are pending.

But once the FOI Appeals Tribunal rules in The Shift’s favour, each government entity then takes their appeals to court in what has become that standard modus operandi across the 40 government entities involved in the case.

In each case, the government is defying decisions by its own appointed bodies – twice.

During a debate organised by The Shift this week on the public’s right to know, the international campaign director for Reporters Without Borders, Rebecca Vincent, said, “the climate for freedom of information in Malta has deteriorated”.

She described the effort of over 40 government entities fighting a single newsroom as “absurd” and questioned why the government would go to such lengths to bury information.

With Friday’s addition of six new court appeal cases, a total of 11 court appeals have now been lodged by the government in last-ditch efforts to gatekeep their information, and The Shift is facing the prospect of another 29 court cases.

The government’s resort to court appeals means it could take years before the public can have the information The Shift is rightfully seeking on its behalf, which the IDPC and the Tribunal Chair Anna Mallia have repeatedly confirmed.

The appeals received on Friday by the Shift are lengthy – between 40 to 80 pages each – and, as such, the government’s lawyers, who are being assigned two at a time to fend off The Shift’s requests for transparency and accountability, are undoubtedly clocking up the hours.

Five of the six government entities in Friday’s appeals alone are separately relying on the services of two lawyers and a legal procurator from the Office of the State Advocate. One would imagine these state employees’ time could be put to far better use than drafting hundreds of pages of appeals against the State’s own Freedom of Information laws.

Using two lawyers at a time for each appeal merely reinforces the SLAPP aspect of the government’s siege mentality approach to its own Freedom of Information legislation since expenses are also naturally being requested in each and every case being filed against The Shift before the courts.

It was only the Planning Authority that used the services of a single lawyer and a legal procurator.

The Shift recently undertook a crowdfunding campaign to help with the legal costs associated with these cases, which are estimated to be at least €40,000, and the initial goal of raising €20,000 was met within two days thanks to our readers and supporters rising to the occasion.

In case you missed it. You can follow The Shift’s debate on the public’s right to know below:

                           
                           
                               
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KLAUS
KLAUS
2 months ago

One really asks oneself:

Is the embarrassment of ROBBER Abela at the UN not enough?
Why did he only follow up with the Council of Europe in such a creepy way?

Does he also want to put his shabby clown mask on all of Malta?

Anthony T Mamo
Anthony T Mamo
2 months ago

We’re being robbed again by the government. These court cases and appeals are obviously being paid for by our taxes. No end to pillaging the country

makjavel
makjavel
2 months ago

This government is hiding an effervescing cesspit , by surrounding it with barbed wire and antipersonnel mines.

makjavel
makjavel
2 months ago

There will be Pawlu Lia in the immeadiate circle of the government lawyers. He even might be sitting in the court room to make sure the lawyers do what they were told to do. This is how this snake works.

Francis Said
Francis Said
2 months ago

In short we are living in a Communist state.

Mick
Mick
1 month ago
Reply to  Francis Said

Mafialand.

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