The Malta Independent 3 June 2020, Wednesday

TMID Editorial: Misuse of the Department of Information - Just stop it now

Thursday, 19 September 2019, 09:28 Last update: about 10 months ago

The Department of Information, or any other apparatus of State for that matter, is not to be used for personal invectives or defences, the good Commissioner for Standards in Public Life has ruled,  once again, against one of the current Members of Cabinet.

This week it was Justice Minister Owen Bonnici, the time before that it was Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi who was found guilty of using the Department of Information for a statement that was laced with highly partisan language, such as 'web of deceit' and 'mud-slinging', which the commissioner ruled 'inappropriate for official statements.


The indictment against Bonnici was not quite as severe but the message is crystal clear: just stop it now.

This week's ruling concerned Justice Minister Owen Bonnici and although the Commissioner acknowledged that he had not broken the code of ethics pertaining to ministers, and that the subject matter does indeed deal with his ministerial portfolio.

But, nevertheless, his statement had come 'dangerously close' to crossing the line as far as ethics are concerned.

The press release in question dealt with the court case lodged by NGO Repubblika over the appointments of those six judges and magistrates, which, it was alleged, flew in the face of the recommendations of the Venice Commission.

The merits of the case itself warrant another leading article itself but the gist if the matter is that Opposition MPs - former PN leader Simon Busuttil and Jason Azzopardi - who are also lawyers, represented the NGO in a case filed against the government.

Bonnici, a lawyer himself, has chosen to take aim at the pair for their role in the case but, according to the Commissioner, he should have known better, far better than that.

The Commissioner, also a reputable lawyer like the other three protagonists of the case in question, schooled the justice minister, saying he should have omitted his criticism of the plaintiffs' counsel because, as any first year law student would know, 'Court cases belong to the litigants not the lawyers, and lawyers do not necessarily endorse the cause by representing a litigant'.

And as such, he found the statement to have been one merely one aimed at scoring political points at the expense, our words, of the independence of the Department of Information and at the expense of good governance itself.

But Bonnici blaming Busuttil and Azzopardi over for their participation in the court case, as the Commissioner pointed out, is simply not on.  They have not misused any apparatus of State for their own political mileage. They may have signed onto the court case for political mileage, and that point is arguable, but the power of incumbency belongs solely to Bonnici in this case.

The fact of the matter is that, like all ministers, Bonnici has his own email address from which he could very well have sent his personal invectives, without having resorted to making them official, State-sponsored invectives.

There has been a lot of to and fro with the case, but the plain fact of that matter is that the use, or misuse, of the Department of Information has to stop, and, we believe, it will stop now that the Commissioner has ruled twice over regarding just as many ministers.

And in so doing, the effect of the Commissioner will be felt not only in terms of chastisements but as a deterrent to further action along such lines by ministers.

There is a line to be drawn in the sand, and the Commissioner has made that line very clear.

Let it not be overstepped again.

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