Obstructing access to information is a crime against democracy

The Ombudsman’s 2017 Annual Report, published earlier this week, is very worrying. At times it makes scary reading. The Ombudsman comments at length on “the failure by the administration to provide information” and points at two general trends.

The first of these is the reluctance of various Government Departments and Ministries to disclose important information. The exact words  from the Ombudsman’s report,  which I quote verbatim, are: “Regrettably the public administration – and this includes public authorities – appears to have adopted a generally negative approach towards its duty to disclose information and the citizen’s right to be informed. Some have gone to extremes by even refusing to provide important and even vital information to which the public was obviously entitled since it concerned important segments of the economic and social life of the country.”

The second trend is even worse: various agreements entered into by government are containing a non-disclosure clause. The Ombudsman states “An even more worrying, recent development that has come to light in an attempt to ensure a total blackout of silence is the practice of binding parties with whom the public administration enters into contractual agreements not to disclose information on the contracts themselves without prior approval from the public authority.”

Now, in fairness, this practice has not been adopted suddenly in 2017. There have been a number of instances in the past where the government bound others, or else accepted to be bound, not to disclose information. Apparently this is now increasing in frequency. It is not just the contract with Henley and Partners on the sale of Maltese citizenship which contains such provisions but also the contract concerning the privatisation of the public lottery system with Maltco, as well as the agreements on the partial privatisation of the Health service with Vitals Healthcare as well as the Electrogas agreements in relation to the Delimara power station changeover to gas.

How can a government claim to be transparent and accountable when it uses or permits the use of the non-disclosure weapon?

The Ombudsman is right to point out this basic deficiency of a public service which pretends that it is fair, efficient, transparent and accountable. I consider that it is also of such importance that it merits discussion in the Constitutional Convention, if this is ever convened. Maybe it is about time that the Constitution should limit very strictly the use by the public administration of non-disclosure as a tool to obstruct the public’s access to information.

Safeguards are required against the abusive use of the non-disclosure of information held by the public administration. Such safeguards could include access to fast track administrative review as well as both publication of the suppressed information and the prohibition from holding public office of those found guilty of blocking the public’s access to information without valid reason.

The Ombudsman explains in his report that the law provides his office with the tools to ensure that it has access to the information it requires “to conduct its investigations into complaints received”, even though this information is at times made available very reluctantly. However, the Ombudsman considers it appropriate to underline three specific instances “that show how the negative response of public authorities to provide information hindered the Ombudsman and his Commissioners in the exercise of their functions”.

The first instance is that concerning the Armed Forces of Malta. The refusal by the Ministry for Home Affairs and National Security to provide all files relating to promotion exercises in the top echelons of the AFM was only resolved after a definite decision of the Court of Appeal in October 2016, which confirmed that the Ombudsman had a duty to investigate the complaints received.

The second instance is that concerning the refusal of the Ministry of Health to comply with the request of the Commissioner of Health to supply “clean copies” of the agreements with Vitals Healthcare on the privatisation of hospitals in Malta and Gozo which were required in the investigation into whether the interests of patients and staff were being adequately protected.

The third instance is that of repeated complaints in all the reports of the Commissioners attached to the Ombudsman’s office [Health, Planning/Environment and Education] on the resulting delay in investigations which, by their very nature, require an immediate response. These delays are the direct result of the failure of various sectors in the public administration to submitting an expedient reply to requests for information.

The duty of the public administration to disclose information, and the right of the citizen  to be informed, is basic in a democratic society. Attempts to block the essential flow of information to the citizen through non-disclosure tools undermines the democratic process, as it blocks the essential elements required by the citizen in order to form a clear and unbiased opinion on the way in which the state is being administered. Moreover, it obstructs those institutions entrusted with defending the common citizen from carrying out their duty.

On behalf of Alternattiva Demokratika-The Green Party, I thank the Ombudsman for taking such a clear and unequivocal stand in favour of the basic tenets of democratic rule and against such blatant abuse of authority.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 10 June 2018

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