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Morally questionable

The arbitrary removal of the Malta Communications Authority chairman Antonio Ghio, who also happened to be Malta’s digital champion, is unacceptable. It is legally unsound and morally questionable.

Through my first parliamentary question in the European Parliament, I formally asked the European Commission to look into the matter and clarify exactly how far this has breached EU law.

The Government should have the courage to stand up, admit its mistake and make immediate amends

Allow me to explain further. The Malta Communications Authority is not simply another Government department. As Malta’s national regulator for the communications sector it falls under the remit of the EU Telecoms Framework Directive 2002/21/EC as amended by Directive 2009/140/EC. In other words, the Government cannot fire people at will without one of a very limited number of legally justified reasons.

A number of people have reacted with a shrug arguing that we should give the Government a chance. Idisagree.

The reason why the MCA cannot be treated as just another government department is clear. As a regulator, the MCA is responsible for an entire sector. Its independence is laid down in EU law. Specifically the EU Telecoms Framework Directive lays down that: “The independence of the national regulatory authorities should be strengthened in order to ensure a more effective application of the regulatory framework and to increase their authority and the predictability of their decisions.

“To this end, express provision should be made in national law to ensure that, in the exercise of its tasks, a national regulatory authority responsible for ex-ante market regulation or for resolution of disputes between undertakings is protected against external intervention or political pressure liable to jeopardise its independent assessment of matters coming before it...”

In other words, regulators such as the MCA should be designed precisely so as not to be forced to bow to the will of the government of the day. It is a small part of the checks and balances that we have should have by now learnt to take as the norm.

When it comes to the forced resignation of the chairman, the Malta Communications Authority Act clearly states that “A member of the authority may be removed from office by the minister if, in the opinion of the minister, such member is unfit to continue in office or has become incapable of properly performing his duties as a member.

Four days after the last general election, the new Government wrote to the board of the MCA, instructing them to offer their resignation.

On March 14 the then chairman of the MCA was constrained to submit his offer of resignation as per the request of the Government, underlining that this breached relevant EU and national legislation.

A ministry spokesman has now begun to backtrack and has reportedly tried to claim that Dr Ghio was never forced to resign and could have simply refused to leave. He could not have.

Had the ministry spokesman got legal advice he would have been informed that the forced resignation in question is a direct consequence of the peremptory instruction given by the Government and is therefore tantamount to removal from office. Whichever way the Government’s spin doctors try to dress it down, Dr Ghio was removed from office. He was forced out by being offered a Hobson’s choice of leave your job or lose your job.

This is further reinforced by the fact that when Dr Ghio asked for valid reasons why his resignation was being demanded, on April 30, the Government, through the newly appointed Permanent Secretary in the Ministry for the Economy informed the chairman that “the Government of Malta considers that you can no longer perform your duties as chairman in light of a change in the administration of the country.”

Now, by what stretch of the imagination can a “change in administration” render someone, who by all accounts is eminently qualified and a leader in the field of digital communications, suddenly “unfit to continue in office or has become incapable of properly performing his duties as a member”?

The Government is wrong. It should have the courage to stand up, admit its mistake and having realised that it has crossed the line and overstepped its mandate, make immediate amends.

Roberta Metsola is a Nationalist MEP.

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