The Shift on Wednesday won another in its long line of Court of Appeal cases government agencies have brought against it to try to conceal media expenditure.
Today’s appeals court victory brings the number of cases Mr Justice Lawrence Mintoff has ruled in The Shift’s favour to 11.
The court appeals were filed by government entities after they lost their cases before the Information and Data Protection Commissioner and the Tribunal after they refused to comply with The Shift’s freedom of information requests.
Today’s court ruling orders the National Development and Social Fund, which is responsible for distributing funds accrued from the sale of Maltese citizenship through the Individual Investor Programme, to accede to The Shift’s requests.
In his ruling, Judge Mintoff ordered the NDSF to abide by the previous IDPC rulings and to make available the contracts and payments it has made to media owner Saviour Balzan and his associated companies.
The court also rubbished the agency’s excuse that since it did not file its payment receipts by name of recipient, it was unable to provide the information being requested by The Shift. As such, the NDSF argued, the Information and Data Protection Tribunal should not have found it at fault for its inability to find and make documents concerning Balzan available.
The Shift had won another eight practically identical cases in one fell swoop last month.
The government has mounted a total of 40 FOI challenges against this newsroom, draining its resources in litigation on cases in which the Information and Data Protection Commissioner Ian Deguara and the Chair of the Appeals Tribunal Anna Mallia have already ruled in The Shift’s favour.
“The government’s coordinated appeals to deny The Shift information in the public interest are being rejected by the court in every single case, in the second round of appeals, in a legal saga we’ve been burdened with over more than two years,” said The Shift’s founder Caroline Muscat.
“This is nothing more than a coordinated attack by Prime Minister Robert Abela to silence an independent newsroom whose integrity can’t be bought. Instead, he has attempted to cripple the newsroom financially, using taxpayer funds to deny them the information they have a right to know.”
The legal ordeal has been ongoing for over two years and it has seen the government go to considerable lengths to withhold information on its public relations expenditure.
Last month’s rulings ordered eight government entities to cough up the information being requested.
These were: WasteServ Malta, the National Statistics Office, the Housing Authority, the Gozo Ministry, the Ministry for Energy, Enterprise and Sustainable Development, the Tourism and Consumer Protection Ministry, the Social Accommodation Ministry and the Armed Forces of Malta.
Those followed similar rulings against the Malta Film Commission and Circular Economy Malta.
Crucially, the multiple rulings now provide case law that limits the government’s misuse and abuse of the Freedom of Information Act. More judgements on several other near-identical cases that government entities have brought against The Shift are expected over the coming weeks.
International media freedom organisations have said the cases constitute a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) action. They have called on the government to drop the cases, as has MEP David Casa – who led a resolution in the European Parliament that backed the call for the cases to be dropped – and the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner, who said the 40 government FOI denial vases against The Shift sends “chilling message”.
“We will continue to fight back. But when does the prime minister take the right decision to stop wasting thousands of euros to silence a newsroom because it is acting in the public interest rather than that of the party?” Muscat added.
Muscat said that despite the 10 rulings from the Court of Appeal ordering the respective entities to The Shift with the documents, none of them has so far done so.
“The government must drop the rest of the cases. And it must cough up the information it is now obliged to provide,” Muscat added.
“We won’t be bought and we won’t surrender. We will continue to demand the information.”
SLAPPs are, in simple terms, vexatious lawsuits intended to financially cripple a newsroom or to make the costs of fighting court cases so high that newsrooms are forced to surrender them or withdraw material from publication.
All 11 government entities that have lost their last-ditch efforts to SLAPP The Shift will now be obliged to provide the requested information.
They have also been ‘slapped’ back by being ordered by Judge Mintoff to cover all the legal expenses from both the Information and Data Protection Tribunal states of the cases as well as those incurred before the Court of Appeal.
Absolutely well done, wipe the floor with them every time.
Hekk Hu Go Fik Abela
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