Failure by the government to disclose information “generates suspicion and favours abuse and corruption”, Ombudsman Anthony Mifsud has warned.
Outright refusal or extreme reluctance to disclose information could be said to have become a style of government that was seriously denting the openness and transparency of the public administration, Mr Mifsud said.
Mr Mifsud remarked in his annual report that failure to disclose information “would… expose the public administration to the charge that it was not being open and transparent”.
The public administration appeared to have adopted a generally negative approach towards its duty to disclose information and the citizen’s right to be informed, he added.
Administering in a shroud of secrecy was indicative of a siege mentality and instilled “a sense of insecurity and doubt” on whether the public administration could withstand the scrutiny of public opinion, Mr Mifsud noted.
“The situation is fast getting out of control and the people’s right to an accountable public administration is being seriously prejudiced,” he insisted.
The practice of binding parties with whom the public administration entered into contractual agreements not to disclose information without approval was an “even more worrying, recent development”.
“The ultimate stage has been reached where essential services in health, energy and other areas are, as a result of privatisation, being exclusively provided by limited liability companies in which the government has or does not have a minority interest,” Mr Mifsud said.
He referred to instances demonstrating the negative response of public authorities to provide information. The refusal by the Home Affairs Ministry to provide files relative to promotion exercises in the top echelons of the Armed Forces of Malta was one case brought up by the Ombudsman.
“These files were eventually handed over following a definitive judgment by the Court of Appeal,” Mr Mifsud recalled.
The Commissioner for Health, which falls within the office of the Ombudsman, also lamented the repeated refusals of the Health Ministry to provide him with clean copies of agreements with Vitals Healthcare on the privatisation of three state hospitals.
“The failure of the ministry to provide the Commissioner with the information he requested was in clear violation of express provisions of the Ombudsman Act,” Mr Mifsud said.
He insisted there was a “popular perception” where any illegality or abuse, however gross, could be forgiven, written off or forgotten.
This could generate a culture of impunity that led one to feel safe to disregard laws and regulations and to commit illegalities in the face of express provisions, the Ombudsman warned.