Il-governanza tajba tinbena fuq it-transparenza

It-transparenza hi l-pedament essenzjali għal governanza tajba. B’kuntrast ma dan, il-governanza ħażina, ġeneralment, tkun akkumpanjata mis-segretezza u dan billi jinżamm jew ikun ostakolat l-aċċess għal informazzjoni ta’ kull xorta, liema informazzjoni għandha tkun pubblika.

Il-ħmieġ assoċjat mal-Panama Papers sirna nafu bih fil-mument li nkixfet l-informazzjoni dwar dawk li fittxew l-irkejjen tad-dinja fejn hi inkoraġġita s-segretezza: irkejjen fejn jinħbew il-flus ġejjin mill-korruzzjoni u mill-evażjoni tat-taxxi. Bl-istess mod l-iskandlu tal-Vitals dwar l-isptarijiet kif ukoll it-taħwid kollu assoċjat mal-power station ma kienux iseħħu kieku l-Partit Laburista fil-gvern għażel it-trasparenza flok is-segretezza bħala għodda essenzjali għat-tmexxija. Segretezza li kultant twaħħxek.

Il-kontabilità li tant niftaħru biha, wara kollox, hi dwar ir-responsabbiltà. Tfisser l-għarfien tar-responsabbiltà għal dak li nagħmlu. Dan ma jistax iseħħ jekk ma ssaltanx it-trasparenza, dejjem, u mhux biss meta jaqbel.

Il-ġimgħa l-oħra, l-Kamra tal-Kummerċ ippubblikat dokument bil-ħsibijiet tagħha dwar il-ħtieġa li tkun inkoraġġita u msaħħa l-governanza tajba. Kien f’loku li l-Kamra tal-Kummerċ emfasizzat li l-governanza tajba hi msejsa fuq it-trasparenza, l-kontabilità u s-saltna tad-dritt.

Spiss jingħad li l-informazzjoni hi poter. It-transparenza hi dwar dan il-fatt: li jkun assigurat li l-poter jinfirex. Għax hu biss meta jkollna għarfien ta’ dak li qed jiġri li nkunu nistgħu neżerċitaw id-dritt bażiku tagħna bħala ċittadini li neżiġu illi kull min jiddeċiedi, u allura jeżerċita l-poter, jagħti kont ta’ egħmilu, dejjem.

Il-politiċi mhumiex l-uniċi li jieħdu d-deċiżjonijiet. Dawn jinkludu liċ-ċivil u lil dawk li jmexxu l-awtoritajiet u l-istituzzjonijiet imwaqqfa biex jiffaċilitaw l-amministrazzjoni tal-istat fit-twettieq tal-funzjonijiet u d-dmirijiet tiegħu.

It-trasparenza teħtieġ li tinfirex anke fid-dinja tal-kummerċ. Spiss nisimgħu lil min jemfasizza li l-politika m’għandiex tindaħal fis-settur privat, fid-dinja tan-negozju. Għal uħud għadu mhuwiex ovvju li anke s-settur privat, u in-partikolari id-dinja tan-negozju, għandu joqgħod lura milli “jindaħal” fil-politika. Fost affarijiet oħra dan ifisser il-ħtieġa li jkun regolat il-lobbying. Dan ma jsirx billi il-lobbying ikun ipprojibit imma billi kull attività ta’ lobbying tkun transparenti. Għax jekk il-lobbying isir sewwa jista’ ikollu impatt posittiv fuq it-tfassil tad-deċiżjonijiet. Hi is-segretezza li tagħti fama ħażina lill-lobbying, segretezza intenzjonata biex ixxaqleb id-deċiżjonijiet lejn interessi kummerċjali u fl-istess ħin biex tostor it-taħwid.

Huwa f’dan id-dawl li l-inizjattiva tal- Ministru l-ġdid għall-Ambjent Aaron Farrugia li jżomm lista tal-laqgħat kollha tiegħu ma’ dawk li jfittxu li jiltaqgħu miegħu, inkluż mal-utenti, u li jippubblika din l-informazzjoni fil-forma ta’ reġistru ta’ trasparenza hi pass kbir ‘il quddiem. Din l-inizjattiva hi f’waqtha u hi ta’ eżempju lill-politiċi oħrajn biex huma ukoll jipprattikaw it-transparenza. Dan imma għandu jkun biss l-ewwel pass li jeħtieġ li jkun segwit bil-pubblikazzjoni ta’ proposti u dokumenti li l-Ministru jirċievi waqt dawn il-laqgħat, kif ukoll il-minuti tal-laqgħat li jkunu saru.

Hu magħruf li l-Kummissarju dwar l-Istandards fil-Ħajja Pubblika qed iħejji biex jippubblika abbozz ta’ proposti dwar ir-regolamentazzjoni tal-lobbying biex eventwalment tkun tista’ issir konsultazzjoni pubblika dwarhom. Nittama li dan iwassal għal sitwazzjoni fejn f’dan il-qasam Aaron Farrugia ma jibqax l-eċċezzjoni. Il-bqija tal-membri tal-Kabinett m’għandhomx jibqagħlhom għażla. Għandhom ikunu kostretti li huma wkoll jaġixxu biex it-transparenza fil-ħidma politika tkun ir-regola u mhux l-eċċezzjoni.

Għax huwa biss meta it-transparenza jkollha egħruq fondi u b’saħħithom li nistgħu nibdew intejbu d-demokrazija tagħna billi neliminaw id-difetti li tħallew jakkumulaw tul is-snin.

 

ippubblikat fuq Illum : Il-Ħadd 26 ta’ Jannar 2020

Good governance is founded on transparency

Transparency is the indispensable foundation of good governance. In contrast, bad governance is generally wrapped in secrecy through the withholding of information which should be in the public domain.

The Panama Papers saga saw the light of day when information on those seeking secretive jurisdictions was made public. These locations are sought to hide  the fruits of corruption or tax evasion from public scrutiny. Similarly, the Vitals hospital scandal, as well as the power station scandal, with all their ramifications, would undoubtedly not have occurred if the Labour Party in government had embraced transparency instead of entrenching secrecy as its basic operational rule.

Transparency is a basic characteristic of good governance whereas secrecy is the distinguishing mark of bad governance, inevitably leading to unethical behaviour and corruption.

Without transparency, accountability is a dead letter; devoid of any meaning. A lack of transparency transforms our democracy into a defective process, as basic and essential information required to form an opinion on what’s going on is missing. After all, accountability is about responsibility: it signifies the acknowledgement and assumption of responsibility for our actions. This cannot be achieved unless and until transparency reigns supreme.

Last week, the Chamber of Commerce published its views on the need to reinforce good governance. Pertinently it emphasised that good governance is founded on transparency, accountability and the rule of law.

It is said that knowledge (and information) is power. This is what transparency is all about: ensuring that power is shared by all as it is only when we are aware as to what is going on that we can exercise our basic right as citizens: holding decision-takers to account. Being in possession of information gives each and every one of us the power to act and exercise our civic rights.

Holders of political office are not the only decision-takers. Decision-takers include the civil service as well as those running authorities and institutions established to facilitate the administration of the state in carrying out its functions and duties.

Even business leaders should be transparent in their actions and decision-taking. Many a time we have heard the expression “we should take politics out of business”, signifying that politics should not interfere in the private sector.

To some it is less obvious that the reverse of that is just as important, meaning that we should also “take business out of politics”. Among other things, this signifies that we should regulate lobbying. This is not done by prohibiting lobbying but by focusing the spotlight of transparency on all lobbying activity. If lobbying is done properly, it could have a beneficial impact on policy making. It is secrecy that gives lobbying a bad reputation: a secrecy intended to derail decisions in a manner beneficial to the different lobby groups as well as to facilitate and shroud underhand deals.

In this respect the initiative of the newly appointed Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia to log all of his meetings with lobbyists and stakeholders and to publish a Transparency Register is a welcome step in laying solid foundations for the practice of transparency by holders of political office. It is, however, only a first step and must be eventually followed by the publication in real time of proposals received as well as the minutes of meetings held.

It is known that the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life will shortly be publishing proposals for the regulating of lobbying. Hopefully, this should lead to a situation where Aaron Farrugia would not be an exception. Others will be compelled to not only follow in his footsteps but to proceed much further in entrenching transparency in the working methods of holders of political office.

A deep-rooted commitment to transparency is the only way by which we can start repairing our defective democracy.

 

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 26 January 2020

Il-Korruzzjoni m’għandhiex kulur

Id-dibattitu dwar il-korruzzjoni fil-gżejjer Maltin ma jispiċċa qatt. Il-korruzzjoni m’għandhiex kulur u tiddependi ħafna fuq kultura ta’ klijenteliżmu u fuq istituzzjonijiet dgħajfa jew imdgħajfa. Sfortunatament, ma teżisti l-ebda rieda politika biex dan ikun indirizzat.

Ma tidher l-ebda azzjoni ċara u konkreta li tikkorrispondi mad-diskors pubbliku u ma jaqta’ xejn dwar tolleranza żero għall-korruzzjoni.

Ir-resistenza tal-Ministri Edward Scicluna, Konrad Mizzi u Chris Cardona biex tinfetaħ inkjesta kriminali minn maġistrat dwar l-allegazzjonijiet tal-kompliċità kriminali tagħhom in konnessjoni mal-ftehim tal-Vitals Global Healthcare dwar l-isptarijiet ma tinftiehemx. Prim Ministru b’tolleranza żero għall-korruzzjoni kien jitlob l-inkjesta hu stess. Inkella kien ikun minn ta’ quddiem biex jappoġġja t-talba li saret.

Kieku l-Partit Laburista kellu tolleranza żero għall-korruzzjoni ilu li bagħat lil Konrad Mizzi u lil Keith Schembri jixxejru. Il-fatt li l-mexxej Laburista Joseph Muscat ma aġixxiex b’dan il-mod ifisser li hu dispost li jagħlaq għajnejh għall-irregolaritajiet li jagħmlu ta’ madwaru. F’dawn iċ-ċirkustanzi, Partit Laburista b’tolleranza żero għall-korruzzjoni kien jiġbed widnejn il-mexxej tiegħu u jwissieh li jiemu magħduda jekk ma jibdilx triqtu. Il-fatt li l-Partit Laburista ma għamel xejn minn dan ifisser ħaġa waħda: li korruzzjoni hi tollerata.

Ikun għaqli jekk niftakru illi fl-istadji inizzjali tal-iskandlu magħruf bħala Panama Papers diversi membri tal-Grupp Parlamentari tal-Partit Laburista irreaġixxew għal dan kollu bil-bibien magħluqa.

F’April u Mejju tal-2016 kienet ħarġet l-istorja li mhux il-Partit Laburista kollu hu illuppjata dwar allegazzjonijiet ta’ korruzzjoni. Id-dibattitu intern, kif irrappurtat fil-medja, kien imqanqal, imma ma wassal għall-ebda azzjoni konkreta.

Il-Partit Nazzjonalista, għalkemm fl-Opposizzjoni, ma jistax ikun alternattiva għal dan għax minkejja li l-kritika tiegħu hi korretta mhuwiex kredibbli.

Il-Partit Nazzjonalista eleġġa mexxej li ftit li xejn jispira fiduċja fost il-pubbliku. Primarjament dan hu minħabba l-informazzjoni li toħroġ minn rapporti investigattivi dwaru ppubblikati minn Daphne Caruana Galizia, informazzjoni li turi kif diversi drabi ma aġixxiex b’mod korrett. Il-politku ma’ għandux il-possibilità li jagħżel meta jixgħel is-switch tal-imġieba etika. L-imġieba tal-politiku meta ma jkunx taħt il-lenti tal-opinjoni pubblika hi l-iktar indikattiva dwar x’isarraf. Il-kaz ta’ klijenti tal-uffiċju legali ta’ Adrian Delia li bbenefikaw minn dħul minn briedel f’Londra huwa eżempju prattiku ta’ dan. Meta l-informazzjoni kienet ippubblikata Delia fetaħ libell imma wara mhux biss irtirah imma ma ħa l-ebda passi alternattivi biex jisganċa ruħu minn dak li ntqal bl-iswed fuq l-abjad dwaru.

L-istess għandu jingħad dwar ix-xhieda ġuramentata tad-Deputat Nazzjonalista Claudio Grech dwar l-iskandlu taż-żejt liema xhieda ngħatat quddiem il-Kumitat Parlamentari għall-Kontijiet Pubbliċi. Dakinnhar Grech qal li ma kienx jiftakar jekk qatt iltaqa’ ma’ George Farrugia, il-moħħ wara l-iskandlu u li wara ngħata l-maħfra biex jikxef kollox. Il-Kap tal-PN ta’ dakinnhar, Simon Busuttil, bl-ebda mod ma rreaġixxa għal din l-imġieba. Ma ttieħdu l-ebda passi kontra Claudio Grech mill-PN f’dan il-kaz li bosta jqisuh bħala li pprova jevita li jikxef informazzjoni ta’ relevanza għal għarfien aħjar ta’ fatti tal-iskandlu.

Fid-dawl ta’ nuqqas ta’ kredibilità, meta l-Opposizzjoni Parlamentari (kif kostitwita illum) titkellem, l-impatt ta’ dak li tgħid bi kritika tal-Gvern ftit hu effetttiv.

Dan nistgħu narawh ukoll fid-dawl ta’ każi ta’ governanza ħażina li jikkomunikaw messaġġ wieħed: il-PL u l-PN huma pezza waħda. Eżempju ċar ta’ dan hu l-kaz tal-involviment ta’ Mario Demarco fin-negozjati kuntrattwali tad-dB fil-kwalità tiegħu ta’ konsulent legali tal-Grupp dB, meta fl-istess ħin kien Viċi Kap tal-Opposizzjoni u kelliemi għall-Finanzi. Għalkemm Mario Demarco għamel apoloġija pubblika dwar dan meta l-qiegħa kienet saħnet, il-ħsara li seħħet kienet sostanzjali. Il-messaġġ ċar li ġie kkomunikat dakinnhar kien li l-aħjar elementi tal-Opposizzjoni Parlamentari ma kinux kapaċi jiddistingwu bejn l-obbligi pubbliċi u l-interessi privati tagħhom.

Ikun opportun ukoll li niftakru fid-diversi rapporti tal-Awditur Ġenerali dwar abbuż minn propjetà pubblika meta din kienet responsabbiltà politika tad-deputat Jason Azzopardi. Il-PN fl-ebda ħin ma esiġa li Azzopardi jerfa’ r-responsabbiltà politika għall-frejjeġ li ħalla warajh.

Il-governanza ħażina u l-korruzzjoni huma kuġini. Waħda twassal għall-oħra. Xi minn daqqiet hemm min jitfixkel waħda mal-oħra.

Alternattiva Demokratika dejjem kienet ċara. Dejjem kellna tolleranza żero kemm għall-korruzzjoni kif ukoll għall-governanza ħażina. Sfortunatament, la l-PN u l-anqas il-PL ma jistgħu jgħidu l-istess.

ippubblikat fuq Illum : Il-Ħadd 17 ta’ Novembru 2019

 

 

 

Corruption is colour-blind

The debate on local corruption is never-ending. Corruption is colour-blind and is heavily dependent upon a clientelist culture, as well as on the existence of weak or weakened institutions. In addition, unfortunately, there is currently no political will to address either.

The never-ending public utterances on zero-tolerance to corruption are not matched with clear-cut action.

The resistance by Cabinet Ministers Edward Scicluna, Konrad Mizzi and Chris Cardona to the initiation of a magisterial criminal inquiry into the allegation concerning their criminal complicity in the Vitals Global Healthcare Hospitals deal is mind-boggling. A Prime Minister with a zero-tolerance to corruption would have requested the inquiry himself. Alternatively, he should have been the first to support the NGO-requested investigation.

A Labour Party which has a zero-tolerance to corruption would have sent Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri packing ages ago. The fact that Labour leader Joseph Muscat did not so act signifies that he is willing to turn a Nelson eye to his colleagues’ misdemeanours. In these circumstances a corruption zero-tolerant Labour Party would have given notice to its leader that his days are numbered if he does not change his ways. The fact that the Labour Party did not so act gives one clear message: it is corruption-tolerant.

It would be pertinent to point out that, in the initial stages of the Panama Papers debate, various members of the Labour Party Parliamentary group reacted behind closed doors. Way back in April and May of 2016, leaks in the media had indicated that not all of the Labour Party is anesthetised in its reactions to allegations of corruption. The internal debate, as then reported, was fierce, but it did not lead to concrete action.

The Nationalist Party, although in opposition, is no alternative to all this, as its criticism, though correct, is not credible.

The Nationalist Party has elected a leader who does not inspire much confidence in the public, primarily as a result of the investigative reports published by Daphne Caruana Galizia which unearthed information that illustrated the various instances in which he acted unethically. Holders of political office have no choice as to when to switch on to an ethical behaviour mode. Their behaviour when they were not under the glaring spotlight of public opinion is most indicative of their ethical worth. A case in point is Adrian Delia’s legal representation of clients benefitting from earnings from London-based brothels in respect of which published information he instituted legal action that he later withdrew. Subsequently he took no action which disproves anything that was published about this brothel business.

Likewise, no action was taken in respect of the sworn testimony of senior PN Member of Parliament Claudio Grech when giving witness in front of the Public Accounts Committee in its inquiry on the oil scandal. Grech had then stated that he did not recollect if he had ever met George Farrugia, the prime mover in the oil scandal, who was eventually pardoned to reveal all. The then PN leader, Simon Busuttil, had not reacted to this behaviour and no action whatsoever was initiated against Claudio Grech by the PN in what most consider a case of avoiding spilling information of relevance.

In view of its lack of credibility, whenever the Parliamentary Opposition – as presently constituted- speaks up, the impact of what has been revealed about Government’s dubious practices is severely diluted.

This could be viewed also with reference to serious issues of bad governance which communicate one clear message: they are cut from the same cloth. A case in point is Mario Demarco’s involvement in the dB contract negotiations as legal advisor to the dB Group, at a time when he was Deputy Leader of the Opposition and its spokesperson on Finance. Though Mario Demarco issued a public apology when the matter made headlines, the damage done was substantial. The clear message conveyed was that the better elements of the Parliamentary Opposition are incapable of drawing a line between their public duties and their private interests.

We may also deem it fit to remember the various reports issued by the Auditor-General on the mis-management of government property. At the time, this was the political responsibility of the Hon Jason Azzopardi but at no time was he asked by his party to shoulder political responsibility for the mess that he left behind.

Bad governance and corruption are cousins; one leads to the other and at times one is easily mistaken for the other.

At Alternattiva Demokratika we have always been clear: we are zero-tolerant in respect of both corruption and bad governance. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the PN and the PL.

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday: 17 November 2019

L-ostaklu tal-aċċess għall-informazzjoni hu delitt kontra d-demokrazija

Ir-rapport Annwali tal-Ombudsman għall-2017 li kien ippubblikat iktar kmieni din il-ġimgħa hu inkwetanti. F’partijiet minnu, nazzarda ngħid li hu ukoll tal-biża’. L-Ombudsman jikkummenta fit-tul dwar “in-nuqqas tal-amministrazzjoni li tipprovdi informazzjoni”.

Josserva żewġ tendenzi ġenerali.

L-ewwel tendenza hi li diversi Dipartimenti tal-Gvern u Ministeri qed isibuha bi tqil biex jiżvelaw informazzjoni importanti. Il-kliem li l-Ombudsman juża’: “Sfortunatament l-amministrazzjoni pubblika – u dan jinkludi ukoll awtoritajiet pubbliċi – jidher li addottaw attitudni ġeneralment negattiva dwar l-obbligu li tkun żvelata informazzjoni u d-dritt taċ-ċittadin li jinżamm infurmat. Uħud marru fl-estrem li anke qed jirrifjutaw li jipprovdu kemm informazzjoni importanti kif ukoll imformazzjoni vitali li l-pubbliku hu ntitolat għaliha minħabba li din tikkonċerna setturi importanti tal-ħajja ekonomika u soċjali tal-pajjiż.”

It-tieni tendenza hi agħar: diversi ftehimiet li daħal għalihom il-Gvern fihom klawsola li tobbliga li jinżamm is-skiet dwar il-kontenut tal-ftehim. Dak li hu magħruf bħala “non-disclosure clause”. L-Ombudsman jgħidilna li issa hawn “żvilupp riċenti u Inkwetanti permezz ta’ attentat biex jiġi assigurat skiet totali hi l-prattika li torbot lil dawk li magħhom l-amministrazzjoni pubblika jkollha rabta kuntrattwali biex ma tiżvelax informazzjoni fil-kuntratti infushom mingħajr l-approvazzjoni tal-awtoritá pubblika.”

Issa fir-realtá, din il-prattika ma ġietx addottata f’daqqa waħda fl-2017. Kien hemm okkazjonijiet fil-passat meta l-Gvern rabat lil oħrajn inkella aċċetta li jintrabat hu stess li ma tkunx żvelata informazzjoni. Jidher imma li din il-prattika qed iżżid fil-frekwenza. Mhux biss il-kuntratt ta’ Henley and Partners dwar il-bejgħ taċ-ċittadinanza li fih dawn il-provedimenti imma ukoll il-kuntratt dwar il-privatizzazzjoni tal-lotteriji pubbliċi mal-Maltco kif ukoll il-ftehim dwar il-privatizzazzjoni parzjali tas-sistema tas-saħħa mal-Vitals Healthcare inkella l-ftehim mal-Electrogas dwar il-qalba għall-gass tal-impjant tal-ġenerazzjoni tal-elettriku f’Delimara.

Kif jista’ jkun li gvern jippretendi li jkun trasparenti u kontabbli meta juża’ jew jippermetti l-użu ta’ strateġiji bħal dawn li jostakolaw li tkun żvelata l-informazzjoni?

L-Ombudsman hu korrett li jipponta subgħajh lejn dan in-nuqqas bażiku ta’ servizz pubbliku li jridha ta’ wieħed ġust, effiċjenti, trasparenti u kontabbli. Jiena naħseb li dan hu daqstant importanti li jimmerita diskussjoni fil-Konvenzjoni Kostituzzjonali – jekk din xi darba issir. Forsi wasal iż-żmien li tkun il-Kostituzzjoni innifisha li tillimita b’mod strett lill-amministrazzjoni pubblika milli tibqa’ tillimita l-aċċess għall-informazzjoni b’dan il-mod.

Hu meħtieġ li jkollna s-salvagwardji kontra dan l-abbuż sfaċċat li qiegħed jostakola l-aċċess għall-informazzjoni li għandha f’idejha l-amministrazzjoni pubblika. Is-salvagwardji jistgħu jinkludu l-possibilitá ta’ reviżjoni amministrattiva immedjata li tikkanċella l-ostaklu għall-aċċess kif ukoll passi biex dawk responsabbli biex jostakolaw dan l-aċċess għall-informazzjoni mingħajr raġuni valida ma jitħallewx iktar jeżerċitaw il-funzjonijiet ta’ uffiċċju pubbliku.

L-Ombudsman jispjega fir-rapport tiegħu li l-liġi tagħti lill-uffiċċju tiegħu l-għodda meħtieġa biex ikollu aċċess għall-informazzjoni li jeħtieġ ħalli “jmexxi l-investigazzjonijiet dwar l-ilmenti li jkunu waslu” avolja din l-informazzjoni xi drabi tingħata b’mod imqanżaħ. Iżda l-Ombudsman iqis li għandu jiġbed l-attenzjoni għal tlett ċirkustanzi partikolari “li juru kif ir-rispons negattiv tal-awtoritajiet pubbliċi meta dawn jintalbu informazzjoni qed ixekkel l-Ombudsman u lill-Kummissarji fl-uffiċċju tiegħu fil-qadi ta’ dmirijiethom”.

L-ewwel kaz jirrigwarda l-Armata. Ir-rifjut tal-Ministeru għall-Intern u s-Sigurtá Nazzjonali li jgħaddi l-files kollha dwar l-eżerċizzji ta’ promozzjonijiet għall-għola gradi fl-Armata issolva biss wara d-deċiżjoni finali tal-Qorti tal-Appell f’Ottubru 2016 liema deċiżjoni ikkonfermat li Ombudsman kellu l-obbligu li jinvestiga l-ilmenti li rċieva.

It-tieni kaz jirrigwarda ir-rifjut tal-Ministeru tas-Saħħa li jipprovdi l-informazzjoni mitluba mill-Kummissarju għas-Saħħa biex dan jipprovdi il-ftehim sħiħ ma’ Vitals Healthcare dwar il-privatizzazzjoni ta’ sptarijiet f’Malta u Għawdex li kien meħtieġ fl-investigazzjoni dwar jekk l-interessi tal-pazjenti u l-istaff (mediku) kienux adegwatament imħarsa.

It-tielet kaz hu dwar l-ilmenti kontinwa tal-Kummissarji fl-uffiċċju tal-Ombudsman (Saħħa, Ippjanar/Ambjent u Edukazzjoni) dwar id-dewmien li qed jirriżulta f’investigazzjonijiet li jkunu jeħtieġu konklużjoni immedjata. Dan minħabba n-nuqqas tas-settur pubbliku li jagħti tweġiba għat-talbiet diversi għal informazzjoni.

L-obbligu tal-amministrazzjoni pubblika li tiffaċilita l-aċċess għall-informazzjoni u d-dritt taċ-ċittadin li jkun infurmat huma bażiċi f’soċjetá demokratika. Attentati biex dan l-aċċess taċ-ċittadin għall-informazzjoni jkun imblukkat b’dan il-mod jimmina l-proċess demokratiku u dan billi ċ-ċittadin qed ikun ostakolat milli jifforma opinjoni fuq kif qed ikun amministrat l-istat. Dan qiegħed ukoll jostakola lil dawk l-istituzzjonijiet fid-dmir li jiddefendu ċ-ċittadin komuni milli jagħmlu xogħolhom.

F’isem Alternattiva Demokratika jiena nirringrazzja lill- Ombudsman talli qed ikun daqstant ċar fid-difiża tiegħu ta’ dak li hu bażiku f’soċjetá demokratika kif ukoll talli qed isemma’ leħnu b’vuċi ċara kontra dan l-abbuż ta’ poter.

Ippubblikat f’Illum Il-Ħadd : 10 ta’ Ġunju 2018

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