Justice Minister Jonathan Attard has refused to answer questions about a study his ministry requested almost two years ago to revamp the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) as suggested by the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body GRECO.
At the beginning of 2021, a call for tenders by the Justice Ministry was awarded to a law firm (Aequitas Legal) to produce a study and a draft Bill for the review of the FOI Act – considered a pillar of transparency in a functioning democracy.
Yet despite the study costing taxpayers some €18,000 being submitted to the ministry together with the draft Bill ready to be presented to parliament for discussion and approval, the report was shelved.
The justice minister, himself a former Labour Party reporter, is refusing to answer questions or publish a copy of the 2021 study.
Attard, as well as his communications officer, John Luke Ellul, refused to reply to questions.
This has now constrained The Shift to file a request for a copy of the report under the same FOI law, which the government had promised to review.
According to the study requested by the justice ministry, the commissioned law firm had to prepare a comparison between Malta’s FOI law and that of other EU member states, review the effectiveness of the Maltese law and review amendments to the law being proposed by the government.
The work was presented to the minister months ago, but Attard has not taken any action to move forward with the changes as promised to international institutions.
The Shift is also informed that the need to implement revisions to the law was also raised by various international NGOs during a meeting with the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner this year.
In an interview published in 2021 by The Times of Malta, Data Protection Commissioner Ian Deguara insisted it was time for the FOI law to be revised.
Acknowledging that the current law has several exemptions and practical implementation problems, he said his office had already made its submissions on the necessary reforms to the law.
Yet the government has been procrastinating for more than a year, and no proposals have been presented to parliament.
The FOI law in Malta was approved by parliament in 2008 and implemented in 2012. Neither of the two main political parties was too keen on this law for transparency being introduced. But no changes have been made since 2012 despite concerns raised about abuse of the law. Even as it stands, it is not respected by those in power.
It seems this situation suits the government as it has launched 40 appeals against Freedom of Information requests by The Shift, refusing to provide information that both the Data Protection Commissioner and the Appeals Tribunal have said should be public.
The costs of responding to these appeals amount to half the operational budget of the newsroom. International press freedom organisations, as well as the OSCE, have condemned this behaviour and insisted on reform.