Abela’s tax on information – Ranier Fsadni

Everything that is too stupid to say, said Voltaire, must be sung. Is there no one who can set to music the refrains of our Prime Minister on the so-called democratic reforms of his government?

The idea must have already come to someone from Castile. We have 40 government and state entities singing from the same anthem sheet as they resist The Shift’s freedom of information (FOI) demands on all contracts awarded to Savior Balzan since 2013.

It’s more than just resistance. It is active hostility. The government is trying to cripple investigative journalism with crippling legal fees.

Amounting to tens of thousands of euros, these costs have been imposed by Robert Abela’s government because it insists on fighting The Shift’s freedom of information requests in court, even though, in the dozen or so cases heard so far, both the Data Protection Commissioner and the Appeals Tribunal Chairperson, Anna Mallia, have ruled in favor of The Shift.

We see the true colors of Robert Abela. The question goes beyond the particular case of Balzan. There is perfect continuity with the attitudes of Joseph Muscat’s government towards investigative journalists. It’s the stratagems that are different.

Under Muscat, there were numerous attempts to cripple Daphne Caruana Galizia financially. The scheme: sue her several times, use criminal defamation and block her bank accounts.

Abela now claims credit for protecting journalists from labor ministers. Criminal defamation is no longer possible. Abela is also distancing himself from strategic lawsuits (SLAPPs) so costly that even the established media could go bankrupt trying to mount a defense.

Instead, however, Abela instituted something that amounts to the same thing in practice.

Under Abela, a minister no longer prosecutes a journalist. But journalists are forced to pay steep legal fees to challenge appeals that government ministers and other entities file in court.

And if you need information from 40 different entities, you have to fight 40 different cases. And pay 40 different sets of fees.

Under criminal libel law, the ministers suing you had their costs paid by the state. Now, government-paid lawyers, with no financial limits, will support The Shift, with its limited operating budget.

Besides money, a lot of work is needed to prepare for these cases. It is energy diverted from other journalistic work to hold the government to account.

It’s a ploy to wear down journalists – financially, psychologically and morally. In this case, it’s The Shift. But all journalists are expected to learn the appropriate lesson.

Journalists work in the public interest. By being hostile to investigative journalism, this government is expressing its hostility to the public’s right to know and to hold it accountable. An antipathy for journalism is an antipathy for democracy.

Indeed, Abela levied a tax on information. You have to pay through your nose and with your blood for information that should be rightfully yours.

It’s part of an established pattern. Journalists had to pay the Election Commission, on the page, for financial records filed by candidates in this year’s general election. And it wasn’t half.

First, the Commission blocked journalists by asking them whether each candidate had applied on time. Then the journalists had to pay €350 just to get copies of the documents. Afterwards, he declined to say how he verifies often vague or suspicious statements.

The government knows that knowledge is power. It taxes information in the hope that you will refuse to pay for it. This tax is supposed to disempower the public.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Golden Labor used to commandeer private properties for its cronies – until too many people were tricked and the tide turned. After 2013, the scheme changed.

From now on, it is the public goods that we have in common that are requisitioned. ODZ zones are loot for friends. The plots of the sea and sidewalks and other public spaces are, in fact, privatized.

And now public information is taxed. You can only get it if you have the stamina and funds for a long and hard fight.

That’s why The Shift’s freedom of information requests are a critical test for Abela’s new scheme in the wake of universal European condemnation of the old “technique” of bankrupt journalists.

International NGOs, including those of professional journalists, see this clearly and they are wreaking havoc. The Institute of Maltese Journalists (IGM) remains silent – a lack of appreciation, in my view, that the interests of all journalists are at stake.

We must decide to give up and submit. Or to insist that the government must face the music of democracy and dance to its tune.