The Malta Independent 22 November 2019, Friday

TMID Editorial: Freedom of information - Transparency needed; government failed its pledge

Thursday, 17 October 2019, 10:20 Last update: about 2 months ago

Recent statistics revealed in Parliament showed that the majority of requests under the Freedom of Information Act decided upon by eight ministries were refused.

The ministries were: the Office of the Prime Minister, the Home Affairs Ministry, the tourism Ministry, the Finance Ministry, the European Affairs and Equality Ministry, the Economy Ministry, the Education and Employment Ministry and the Energy and Water Management Ministry, and the data dealt with such requests received since 3 June 2017.

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In total for these ministries, 342 requests under the Act were made. The data shows that 29 requests are still pending, and 8 requests were cancelled by the person filing it. This means that 305 cases were decided. Over half (165) of the requests were refused, while 140 were accepted.

The reasons for refusal included that this was due to the requested information not falling within the parameters of the Freedom of Information Act. Some also argued that requests were rejected as the documents requested were not held by the public authority, among other reasons

They said that the requests were made from different media houses, and private individuals.

Now there are valid requests for refusal to be sure. For example there could be situations where data protection comes into play, but at the same time there are certain instances where requests, in this newsroom’s opinion, should have been granted due to the public’s right to be informed, but were not. Such examples include requests for contracts made by newsrooms to government entities, which are however denied – normally under the pretext of commercial sensitivity.

With all due respect, when it comes to the use of vast sums of public funds, or to situations which affect the public’s day to day lives, the people have a right to know, and the media have an obligation to fight for that right.

There are other situations where the reason behind a refusal just does not make sense. There was an incident where this newsroom had filed such a request only for it to be refused, and a meeting setup with the entity’s Freedom of Information Officer, then being told that the data is scattered and that they cannot compile it. This newsroom had even offered to compile it itself if it is given access to said scattered data, but this was refused.

The government, way back in 2013, had pledged transparency. Well its about time it is held accountable for its failure to uphold this promise. Transparency would have seen full contracts involving state entities of national importance published in full, and not heavily redacted.

As an example, this newsroom recently requested that the full contract between  Ryan Air group and the Maltese government regarding Malta Air be published, yet this was refused.

This, during a time when there were concerns about Air Malta’s future. Other past examples include the VGH deals, and the Electrogas deals, which saw pivotal information redacted from what was released to the media.

In the case of VGH, the company effectively sold the agreement and left the island, and yet the public still have no idea what really went on. This situation dealt with three national hospitals, yet the government chose to play it out in the shadows, behind the scenes, rather than diligently in the public eye.

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