Government entities this week rushed to the Court of Appeal to submit new challenges against The Shift’s Freedom of Information requests after the FOI Appeals Tribunal upheld another six of the Data Protection Commissioner’s initial rulings to release information being requested.
The information that the government is going to extraordinary lengths to withhold concerns how public funds are being used to fund the operations of MaltaToday and Saviour Balzan’s private businesses, particularly the public relations consultancies offered to different ministries.
Headed by lawyer Anna Mallia, the Information and Data Protection Appeals Tribunal threw out another round of challenges against releasing such information by the Malta Police Force, the National Social and Development Fund (NSDF), which administers funds from the sale of Maltese citizenship, and five different ministries – those of finance, the environment, the economy, social policy and home affairs).
In total, 40 government ministries and agencies are refusing to abide by the decision of the Data Protection Commissioner to release the information, taking the cases to the Appeals Tribunal.
So far, Chair Anna Mallia has thrown out 25 of those cases.
Yet the government entities are now filing second appeals, this time in court, where The Shift is facing another 17 cases (so far) before Judge Wenzu Mintoff.
In all this effort, the government is appealing the decisions of its own bodies – twice – imposing a substantial financial burden on a small newsroom that has to fight back some 80 lawyers, paid by taxpayers, to deny information in the public interest.
Through her decisions upholding earlier rulings by the Data Protection Commissioner, Mallia has insisted that The Shift has every right to seek information on how public funds are being administered and that the government should be accountable for its expenditure.
Soon after these decisions, instructions were issued by the Office of the Prime Minister for a last-ditch challenge to try to twist the latest Freedom of Information decisions in the government’s favour.
Through the office of the State Advocate, lawyers Anthony Borg and Corinne Pace this week filed counter-appeals to Mallia’s decisions, repeating the exact arguments that have already been thrown out twice – by both the Commissioner for Data Protection and the Appeals Tribunal.
In what is being described in legal terms as a 40-strong SLAPP against The Shift, the government appears adamant on crippling financially the small independent newsroom with continuous and lengthy legal battles.
It started as a simple Freedom of Information request following revelations in court by Keith Schembri, the former chief of staff of disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat, who exposed Balzan as being ‘more of a lobbyist than a journalist’ who would continuously ask for handouts.
The Shift filed FOI requests to seek the information to which Schembri had alluded, also following reports by The Times of Malta that revealed Balzan was acting as a consultant to Minister Ian Borg on the controversial Central Link project when public opposition was widespread. The Shift also revealed he was a consultant to former justice minister Edward Zammit Lewis, all while running an independent newsroom across several channels.
From the little that is already known, Balzan has been the beneficiary of more than €1 million in contracts and direct orders.
The cases the government is instituting against The Shift and its own appointed bodies come at a significant expense to the State in legal fees and handouts to lawyers close to the administration. Among these recruited for the purpose is Labour Party President Ramona Attard.
One of the arguments the government is making against The Shift’s demands for transparency is that the exercise of gathering all the information on Balzan’s handouts would prove to be excessively cumbersome.