Updated Thursday 8.20am with Civil Society Network's call for the inquiry to be extended to possible use of public funds to subsidise party media

Ministers and parliamentary secretaries are facing a criminal investigation over their alleged misuse of funds, after a probe found that four of them used public money to boost material uploaded directly to their private Facebook pages.

A magisterial inquiry led by magistrate Doreen Clarke with investigations by the Economic Crimes Unit is widening the investigation conducted by Standards Commissioner George Hyzler.

In May, Hyzler found that Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg, Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia, Economy Minister Silvio Schembri and Finance Minister Edward Scicluna all incorrectly used public resources on social media.

Education Minister Owen Bonnici was not found to have misused public resources.

Following the probe, Hyzler had referred the matter to the National Audit Office for a wider investigation. The NAO had, in turn, referred it to the police, saying it did not have the capacity to conduct a criminal investigation into the matter. 

The Nationalist Party had called on the NAO to give this investigation utmost priority. 

The issue was investigated after a complaint filed by Christian Peregin, CEO of Lovin Malta, who reported news of the inquiry on Wednesday.  

Misuse of taxpayer funds

The Standards Commissioner said the random sampling of five ministers' posts led him to observe that while good practices exist, bad practices and misuse of resources is widespread.

"In my opinion, a number of ministers and parliamentary secretaries have, to date, failed to properly distinguish between the official and personal spheres in the use of their personal social media channels", Hyzler said in the report. 

The Commissioner said it was common practice for ministers and parliamentary secretaries to publish content that appears to have been created specifically for their personal social media channels using official resources.

"In this way they are using public resources to raise their own personal and political profiles. This represents misuse of public resources and a blurring of their roles as members of the executive and as politicians. This practice should be discontinued", the report states.

Prime Minister Robert Abela had subsequently said that ministers were now adhering to guidelines created by the Standards Commissioner and said the case was "closed".

Call for inquiry to be extended 

The Civil Society Network in a statement called for the investigation to be extended to the use of public funds to effectively subsidise media agencies belonging to political parties.

"CSN is calling for an investigation into the use of public resources for partisan interests, especially work contracts in the public sector to employees of the Labour Party within ONE Group," it said.

It is no secret that many ONE Group employees simultaneously enjoy contracts in the public sector, it obvserved.

"Thus, there is a basis to investigate whether public funds are used to effectively subsidise media agencies belonging to political parties."

"In Malta, a lack of party-state distinction creates a tension in the political topography of the country, and undermines the strength of the independent press who has to compete with the Government. In recent years, international reports have lamented the erosion of media freedom that has continued to decline after the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia."

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