Lovin Malta has spent years now trying to establish how much public money was illegally used by ministers on their own personal Facebook pages, but the process has turned into a legal nightmare.
The latest development comes in the form of another Freedom of Information request being refused, this time by the Office of the Prime Minister.
Last February, the Information and Data Commissioner claimed former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat never had an official Facebook page and that no public funds were ever committed to maintaining any Facebook pages of Prime Ministers since 2013.
The two claims are demonstrably untrue. Muscat’s official Facebook page is well known to the public.
And according to information supplied in response to a parliamentary question in 2017, the Office of the Prime Minister spent €553,393 on social media between March 2013 and September 2017.
So besides appealing the Information and Data Commissioner’s ruling in court, Lovin Malta sent a fresh Freedom of Information request to the Office of the Prime Minister.
This time, we asked for a breakdown of how the €553,393 was spent, including documentary evidence showing which social media ad account and pages the expenditure was made from.
Sure enough the request was rejected, and the government found a new way of ensuring secrecy.
“The request cannot be met in view of Section 14 (f)(iii) of the Freedom of Information Act since the resources required to locate and collate the requested information would substantially divert the resources of the public authority from its other operations.”
In other words, downloading the Facebook ad account history – which actually just takes a few minutes – would take too long and cost too much money for it to be justified in terms of Freedom of Information.
But it gets worse.
The FOI rejection also came with this totally contradictory line: “As regards the second part of the FOI request, please note that OPM and the Prime Minister never had a Facebook page financed through public funds.”
So even though the OPM claims it never had access to a Facebook page and therefore never spent money on one, it would somehow take too long to provide records of how it spent money on social media.
The OPM provided no explanation of how it managed to spend €553,393 on social media ads without having a Facebook ad account.
Facebook misspending by ministers was “widespread”, according to an investigation by the Standards Commissioner.
There is also a pending magisterial inquiry into whether ministers who misused public money on their personal profiles broke the law on misappropriation of public funds.
Until 2017, the government was spending at least €23,331 per month on social media despite most of the ministries not having their own Facebook pages.
Lovin Malta will continue investigating this case until we get a clear picture of how much taxpayer money was illicitly spent and by whom.
What do you make of the decision to refuse this latest FOI request? Share your thoughts in the comment below