It is so transparent that it can’t be seen

On 28 September, the United Nations and other international organisations celebrated the International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI). Not in Malta, where there are times when being part of the government’s public relations teams, drafting press releases peppered with words like “transparency” or “commitment” must surely be an otherworldly experience, wholly disconnected from reality.

When a letter signed by journalists, broadcasters, and other activists was sent to the Office of the Prime Minister calling for the publication of the report drafted by the ‘Committee of Experts’ on the media, the Office issued a statement committing itself to publish the document during Parliament’s first sitting after the summer recess.

Whatever the relevance of having a Parliament sitting is anyone’s guess – perhaps it makes it easier for Government MPs to rebut possible criticism of the report.

Apart from the fact that many now know precisely what to make of the government’s “commitments”, it was the following sentences in the press release that stood out:

“The report will be published in full and with the full transparency the government has always shown during this process,” and “This is a process where the government never kept secrets and will never keep secrets, while never closing the door for consultation”.

So transparent was the government about its proposed legislation for the media that not only did it fail to have any meaningful consultation about the draft laws, but the Office of the Prime Minister also turned down a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation for a copy of the report by the committee regarding the protection of the media.

In another example of government “transparency”, during a press conference on 15 September, Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo and Film Commissioner Johann Grech said a study they commissioned into a cash rebate system “factually confirms” that it helps Malta’s economy, but they refused to publish the document.

Moreover, the Film Commission rejected The Shift’s Freedom of Information requests to break down the estimated expenditure. On Friday, Bartolo told the Times of Malta that a redacted version of the report will be published ‘in the coming days’.

Similarly, the tourism minister promised to publish a detailed financial report with last year’s expenditure for the Malta Film Awards.  This, too, was never published, and all he did instead was distribute the total cost of the broader Malta Film Week event.

Johann Grech also commenced civil proceedings to prevent information on the expenditure of public funds, requested by the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation through a Freedom of Information request, from being published.

And while we’re on the matter of Freedom of Information requests, a report commissioned by the government to revise the Freedom of Information Act, intended to guarantee the public’s right to access information, remains unpublished.

In early 2021, the Justice Ministry awarded a contract to a law firm (Aequitas Legal) to conduct a study and draft legislation to review the FOI Act – considered a pillar of transparency in a functioning democracy.

The study, costing taxpayers €18,000, was submitted to the ministry, and a draft Bill is ready to be presented to Parliament for discussion and approval. Still, it has been kept under wraps or shelved somewhere – in keeping with the government’s idea of “transparency”.

As a result, The Shift was forced to file a Freedom of Information request after the justice minister refused to answer questions on why the report has not been made public and why the recommendations have yet to be implemented. In an ironic twist, the government shot down the request for transparency – twice.

Last November, the Times of Malta reported how a government study into domestic violence has been gathering dust for a year, and it was only after the newspaper obtained a copy through a Freedom of Information request that its content was made public.

The study presented a bleak picture of fatigued police officers, prolonged court delays that disrupt victims’ lives, dismissed court cases, and a system plagued by a lack of coordination.

Four months after the issues were brought to light by media reports, Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri in March acknowledged that he was not made aware of the government-funded report. Intra-government lack of transparency, perhaps?

One can argue that, in some instances, such as when asking for legal advice, the government is not necessarily obliged to publish a report or the advice it has received.

However, if the reports commissioned are on matters of public interest, such as reports on legislation for the media, freedom of information, domestic violence or even a financial analysis of the Film Commission’s unbridled spending of taxpayer funds, then publishing the reports is the least the government should be doing.

Good governance and the rule of law require that they be published.

Regrettably, the government is far from meeting even the most basic transparency standards, so perhaps all those communication teams and spokespersons frantically typing out press releases should bin the word “transparency” altogether.

                           

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wenzu
wenzu
5 months ago

The MLP demonstrating that it really is a totally incompetent bunch of amateurs- ONLY interested in photo ops and self serving interests.

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