The Times of Malta has filed a court appeal over a “superficial” decision by the Data Protection Appeals Tribunal denying access to a memorandum of understanding signed as part of the Vitals Global Healthcare hospital deal.
VGH bowed out of the deal last December, selling it to Steward Health Care for an undisclosed amount. The memorandum of understanding laying out the broad terms of the deal was signed between the government and the businessmen behind VGH in October 2014.
The signing took place five months before Projects Malta published a request for proposals for parties interested in running three public hospitals.
A 30-year, €2-billion concession saw the contents of the three hospitals being sold for €1.
No public announcement about the memorandum of understanding was ever made. Its existence was only confirmed thanks to a VGH presentation given to financial institutions that was later leaked to the Times of Malta.
In the presentation, VGH said an agreement to take over the Gozo, St Luke’s and Karin Grech hospitals had already been signed.
Assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia reported in March 2015 that an agreement with the investors behind VGH had already been reached with the government.
A request the Times of Malta made in December 2016 under the Freedom of Information Act to have a copy of the memorandum of understanding was rejected by Malta Enterprise.
The government entity rejected a later appeal and would not even give a copy of the memorandum of understanding to the Data Commissioner’s office to allow it to decide if the document could be made available according to the law.
The Data Commissioner’s request for the memorandum of understanding led Malta Enterprise to take the matter to the Information and Data Protection Appeals Tribunal. The tribunal upheld Malta Enterprise’s appeal, arguing that the document was covered by confidentiality.
The tribunal said the memorandum of understanding was no longer valid because it had been superseded by the contract signed with VGH, which was publicly available.
In its application, the Times of Malta argued that the tribunal had based its decision on a very “superficial” reading of the law and said the management of public hospitals was a matter of great public interest.
The privatisation of the hospitals had proven controversial, resulting in complaints from unions in the healthcare sector and judicial proceedings, all of which had been the subject of media reports, the newspaper’s application said.
The limitation of access to documents listed in the Freedom of Information Act should be interpreted strictly so as not to impede access to information, the Times of Malta submitted. It said the Data Commissioner was correct in saying he had a legal right under the law to access the memorandum of understanding and then decide on the newspaper’s request for access.
The application calls for the Appeal Tribunal’s decision to be overturned. It was signed by lawyer Paul Micallef Grimaud.