The Malta Independent 25 September 2022, Sunday
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TMID Editorial: Reforming the Freedom of Information Act

Saturday, 17 September 2022, 10:36 Last update: about 8 days ago

Freedom of Information requests are something which many journalists on the island are no doubt familiar with.  However, this means of acquiring information which is in the interest of the public has become yet another area where all efforts are being made to not provide that information.

Let’s start by discussing what the intended aim of the Freedom of Information Act is.  In essence, it is a key mechanism which any Maltese or EU national who has been in Malta for five years can utilise to request a particular document or information from any public entity.

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One may ask for any document held by a public authority without giving reason or justification his request, and the public authority has the obligation to – save for very specific reasons – provide the document or information requested.

Unfortunately, in recent months and years, the intentions behind the FOI Act have not been respected. 

Newsrooms across the country, including this one, have had multiple FOI requests turned down for reasons which are not stipulated in the FOI Act and have been forced to go through a lengthy and discouraging appeals procedure in order to try and have a form of hope of acquiring the requested information.

One such recent example is The Malta Independent’s campaign to learn how much the Malta Film Awards cost the taxpayer, amidst reports that the lavish event went wildly over its initially predicted budget.

Two separate requests were refused with little basis, and it took a complaint being filed on the second request for the Film Commission to say that they simply couldn’t provide the information requested because it had – conveniently – mixed its costs in with the overall cost of Malta Film Week.

Now, in order to acquire that information – information which, again, is about determining how taxpayer’s money was spent – we must go through a lengthy appeals process through a tribunal in order to stand a chance of acquiring information which is within the public’s interest.

This is the case for any other newsroom attempting to acquire information, and it is a process which many will be familiar with as they too are likely going through the same thing with their own respective FOI requests.

It is clear that a reform to the FOI Act in order to place more of a legal obligation on the government to provide information which is in the public’s interest has to be carried out.

There should be no barrier to information which is in the public interest, particularly when it involves public funds and especially in today’s economic scenario where every public euro which is misspent is a disservice to everyone, and that has to be something which an FOI reform must take into account.

Furthermore, this information must be provided in a timely manner.  Nobody should have to go through half a dozen different hoops in a process which will take months in order to try and acquire what should rightfully be in the public domain.

This was one of the recommendations put forth by the public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s death – meaning that it’s one of the things which the government committed itself to doing when Prime Minister Robert Abela said he would be implementing the recommendations of the inquiry.

We can but hope that this will come in a timely manner, and that we will start to see more accountability with how information which is in the public’s interest is handled.

 

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