Obtaining information from official sources has always been quite a task. It is now worse, as the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom noted in its latest report.

Rating the right to information as being at “high risk”, the Europe-wide study pointed out it is even more at risk than last year. Malta, it observed, continues to lack “a way for journalists to obtain public-interest information from the government without lengthy complaints and court processes”. The report deems it an “urgent” matter to bring in line with international best practice the way such requests are handled here.

Everything indicates that, rather than striving to follow international best practice, the Abela administration is adamant in interpreting the Freedom of Information Act more as freedom to finding ways and means to suppress information.

Enacted in late 2008, almost four years had to pass before all the provisions of that law came into force. The former dean of the university’s faculty of laws, Kevin Aquilina, had welcomed it as a tool to “empower the fourth estate to be more vigilant of the government’s actions, especially when the government tries to hide embarrassing decisions from the public and the media”.

Two political administrations and three prime ministers later, that did not happen, as the Monitoring Media Pluralism in the Digital Era report shows. Even the authors themselves had problems seeking information from the government. “The difficulty in accessing information on matters of public interest, such as public spending, for the purposes of this report is a testament to the culture of secrecy and lack of transparency,” they commented.

Speaking about government reports, Sir Humphrey Appleby, the world-famous fictional British top civil servant, was certainly referring to reality when he commented in a Yes Prime/Minister episode, it could be argued that the Sermon on the Mount, were it a government report, would never have been published.

A British journalist had warned, after the explosive disclosure of the Panama Papers in April 2016, that the rich and the famous, including politicians, had to realise their once-secret machinations were not secret anymore. That seems to have made governments, like ours, becoming more determined in keeping tighter control on information in their possession.

In fact, in a letter to the prime minister last year, Dunja Mijatović, who was the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights at the time, felt it necessary to underscore Malta’s “unwarranted secrecy within state institutions”.

A long list of pending requests for information keeps getting longer, notwithstanding the efforts of the information and data protection commissioner. Even questions tabled in parliament remain unanswered or take ages to be answered, with the speaker saying he is unable to do anything about the situation. 

One can understand the government being reluctant to give details on sensitive matters, like national security, public safety or diplomatic relations. However, it has now become a practice for the government to restrict access to information and squeezing something from official sources has become a time-consuming feat.

Faced as it is with almost daily scandals, the government is suppressing information in a desperate bid to avoid further political embarrassment and shield itself from public scrutiny. Bureaucracies tend to suffer from an ingrained culture of secrecy. It has now become an obsession for Robert Abela and his administration.

The answer lies in robust legal frameworks, independent oversight, judicial activism, a vigilant civil society and an informed public that is ready and willing to engage.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us