Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi has been asked to stop sending press statements through the taxpayer-funded Department of Information (DOI) when these are not related to official matters or they are partisan in tone.
The Commissioner for Standards in Public Life this morning issued a report dealing with a press statement issued by the Ministry for Tourism through the DOI on February 6th. The statement, which triggered a complaint by lawyer Andrew Borg Cardona, had announced that Minister Mizzi was withdrawing a number of libel cases he had instituted to contest allegations of money-laundering on his part, since these allegations had already been declared baseless in court proceedings.
In his report, the Commissioner took the view that the press statement dealt with a political issue arising from Minister Mizzi’s personal interests and was not related to his official duties. Minister Mizzi filed the libel cases in his own name and damages would have been awarded to him personally had he pursued the cases to a successful conclusion.
Furthermore, the press statement was couched in a partisan tone. Among other things it accused members of the Opposition of spinning a “web of deceit” and “mud-slinging”.
“The Commissioner finds that such terms are not appropriate for official statements issued by the DOI. The Commissioner also finds that the practice of feeding the DOI with such statements, whether or not the statement relates to a matter that is of interest to the public (as opposed to in the public interest), and whether or not this is a custom that is well established in the Maltese political system, is not correct and should be stopped,” the Commissioner said.
“The Standards in Public Life Act provides us with an opportunity to challenge customs that are well established in the Maltese political system if such customs fall short of the standards that we collectively aspire to embrace.”
The Commissioner added that the DOI should be “jealous of its political impartiality”. He called for a policy to be drawn up on the dissemination of press statements by ministries or possibly a wider policy on the role of the DOI in the media world.
At the same time, the Commissioner acknowledged that the absence of such a policy may have misled Minister Mizzi. He takes the view that, in the circumstances of the case, the appropriate remedy is for the Minister to direct his officials to be more sensitive to the distinction between official and private or partisan matters, and not to make use of the DOI for private or partisan matters in future. In his report the Commissioner states that Minister Mizzi has agreed to this course of action. The Commissioner is therefore closing the case.