Updated at 10.35pm, adds Repubblika statement

A press release from Economy Minister Silvio Schembri represented a breach of ethics, given that ministers are obliged to respect the political impartiality of the public service, the Standards Commissioner has ruled.

Official press releases issued by the Department of Information should not include partisan political statements, George Hyzler, the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, said on Tuesday.

Hyzler made his statement in a report following a complaint by former PN candidate Kevin Cassar against Schembri, concerning a press statement issued by the minister through the department on October 8. 

Cassar had asked the commissioner to investigate a statement by Schembri relating to the decision taken by the Malta Business Registry to remove 10,000 dormant companies from its register. 

He told the commissioner that the language used in the press release, as well as the content, “is clearly partisan” and the statement did not respect the political impartiality of the public service.

The press release said: “It is clear that the intention of the PN statement is to cause harm.  Its authors are very much aware that they are being deliberately deceitful”.  

It also said: “The deplorable attack is yet another example how the Opposition strives to harm the country continuously. While it is a fact that the current leader of the Opposition is ashamed to say that he is Maltese, such a stance does not give him the prerogative to harm the country."

He noted that ministers and members of the Opposition are at liberty to make partisan statements through personal or party channels, but doing so through the Department of Information constitutes an abuse. 

He, therefore, upheld the complaint and closed the case after receiving a statement from Schembri acknowledging that his press statement “might have been considered overly partisan” and undertaking to “make every effort to avoid such statements when these are issued through the DOI”.

The commissioner considered this statement to be “sufficient remedy” in the circumstances but stated he would take a more serious view of similar future cases. 

He noted that he had considered the use by ministers of the Department of Information in a report issued in August 2019 and reiterated the recommendation he had made in that report for the DOI to develop a policy determining what constitutes acceptable content in statements to be published by it.

Hyzler's report in full can be read in the PDF link below.

Repubblika statement

In a statement, civil society group Repubblika condemned Schembri and said he should shoulder responsibility.

The Prime Minister, it said, had the duty to ensure that ministers behaved correctly so he was obliged to take action if the minister did not do so himself.

It said the country could not continue as if nothing happened when a minister breached the code of ethics.

Repubblika also said that the head of the public service should also ensure that the press releases service provided by the Department of Information was impartial as required by the Constitution.

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