Records on the identity of the real owners of Malta-based companies will no longer be available to the general public, the business registry announced on Friday.

In what has been described as a blow to transparency, the European Court of Justice this week “invalidated” an EU anti-money laundering directive that guaranteed public access to information on who the beneficial owners of companies are.

The Malta business registry said on Friday that in response to the judgment, access to the beneficial ownership registry is being restricted to competent authorities and financial sector companies and other professionals responsible for carrying out customer due diligence.

Transparency International said the European Court decision will set back the fight against cross-border corruption “by years”.

The court did recognise that civil society and the media have a legitimate interest in accessing such information, given their role in the fight against money laundering.

In their announcement, the Malta business registry made no reference to giving access to media outlets and civil society organisations.

Companies with hidden ownership are often used by criminal gangs and corrupt officials to secretly move money across borders.

Transparency International’s Maíra Martini said access to beneficial ownership data is vital to identifying – and stopping – corruption and dirty money.

“The more people who are able to access such information, the more opportunity to connect the dots. We have seen time and time again, from the Czech Republic and Denmark to Turkmenistan, how public access to registers helps uncover shady dealings.

“At a time when the need to track down dirty money is so plainly apparent, the court’s decision takes us back years," she said.

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