For over a year, the authorities have been refusing to say how many people were rescued in Maltese search-and-rescue waters, and how many were brought ashore, taken to Libya or Italy, citing national security reasons while dismissing the request as “curiosity”.

Times of Malta is requesting the data in light of claims, over the past years that Malta was failing to assist migrants at risk and of breaking international laws.

As a public authority, the Armed Forces of Malta is entrusted with public funds to rescue life at sea placing the public authority under the obligation of transparency and accountability. 

Times of Malta has sought the information through Freedom of Information requests, which were refused, and has now taken its case to the Information and Data Protection Commissioner.

The authorities first refused to provide the data in parliament in January and February 2022.

Times of Malta then sought replies from the government following the dissolution of parliament and the election of a new administration.

 When no reply was forthcoming, in May 2022, we filed Freedom of Information requests with the AFM, the Home Affairs Ministry and the Office of the Prime Minister.

The news organisation asked for documents with information on how many people were rescued in Maltese search-and-rescue waters and brought to Malta, taken to Libya or taken to Italy for the years spanning between 2018 and 2022. 

The Home Affairs ministry and the OPM transferred the request to AFM, which, however, turned down the request.

In its reply, the AFM said the requested information did not constitute a ‘document’ as outlined by the act regulating FOI requests. However, it went on to note that the request was being refused as disclosure could adversely affect international relations.

“The release of such information would, or could reasonably be expected to, cause irreparable harm and damage to security and/or defence of Malta, for the following reasons: the applicant seeks to obtain operational statistics and data of a sensitive nature, while it is further counter to national security interests to divulge the operational modus operandi of the force,” it said.

Times of Malta asked the AFM to reconsider the refusal, insisting the forces were subject to accountability which could only be fulfilled with the provision of information. The FOI request did not in any manner ask for information which would question the operational modus operandi of the entity.

‘Merely an element of curiosity for some’

The request for reconsideration was not upheld and in August we asked for a review by the Information and Data Protection Commissioner.

In its submissions in front of the commissioner, the AFM reiterated its concern over national safety and security, noting also that a portion of the information was subject to an ongoing court case.

The document sent to Times of Malta listing the AFM’s submissions had several parts redacted. In it, the AFM claims that the information requested could be used by third parties “with illicit intentions”. 

“Knowing how the AFM operates, on its own and… might guide said third parties to make their apprehension more difficult, and this undermine the military’s function which is, ultimately, the local authority entrusted with the defence and security of the nation.

“What may merely be an element of curiosity for some, may be a valuable source of information to human traffickers, smugglers, and other criminals,” it added.

Reacting, in November Times of Malta said that such description of the role of a public watchdog – a journalist – reflected the culture of secrecy and lack of transparency and accountability in which the AFM’s refusal was founded. 

We added that the request was for numbers, not for any other document that would divulge military intelligence, military operations, surveillance operations, or anything of the sort. 

“The public authority speaks of prejudice to national security, defence and international relations but fails to explain why the disclosure of the number of persons rescued in Malta’s search and rescue area, or how many disembarked in Malta would create that prejudice.”

The commissioner has not yet decided on the case.

A litany of claims against Malta

Over the past years there have been several claims of Malta’s failure to assist migrants at risk, with the island being involved in a controversial operation in 2020 to return people to war-torn Libya.

In 2021, the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency flagged Malta’s “intensified efforts” to stop asylum seekers from disembarking on the island during the pandemic.

Then last year, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights warned that the decrease in Malta’s search-and-rescue efforts over the past few years, together with its reported failure to assist migrants rescued by NGO ships and its restrictive disembarkation policies, continued to pose significant risks to human rights – including the right to life – of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in the central Mediterranean.

More recently, comments by a senior Italian politician hinted at growing tensions between the two countries about the issue.  

“Malta’s attitude is starting to grate,” said Tommaso Foti, who heads the ruling right-wing Fratelli d’Italia grouping in Italy’s parliament. “They consistently pretend not to see and never intervene. Our coastguard is under pressure,” he said. 

Maltese authorities deny the existence of any plan to systematically ignore rescue calls.

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