From the Times website, Jan 2, 2010
Update 2: NGOs says their harassement in breach of Aarhus Convention
Mepa denies allegations, FAA replies
(Adds Mepa statement, FAA's reaction)
The purchase of an agricultural field 40 years ago by the president of the Ramblers’ Association in no way indicated any attempt on his part to develop the land, six environmental organisations said.
In a statement, Birdlife Malta, Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar (FAA), Friends of the Earth, GAIA Foundation, Malta Organic Agriculture Movement (MOAM) and Ramblers Association said that the land remained untouched, Mr Bugeja never applied for a permit to build on this land and he had no intention of developing the field.
The organisations also referred to allegations about FAA’s Astrid Vella’s application to construct a small pool on the terrace of a block of flats built with regular permits years earlier.
The building, the organisations said, formed part of a cluster of old buildings on the outskirts of Xaghra. Her 1998 application was refused and she did not appeal.
Ms Vella has not been the owner of this property for many years and at no point did she or members of her family apply for a pool or house in fields or on virgin land, as was being claimed.
The organisations said that these allegations failed to justify, as they appeared to have been intended to do, the violation of the Bahrija site which was protected by the highest level of EU protection.
The six organisations also deplored the fact that, while MEPA was usually very careful about what information was disclosed to the public, Ms Vella’s file was traced to people at MEPA who had no legitimate reason to be viewing it or, more seriously, retaining it.
“Such unethical practice has, in the past, led to leaks or possible misuse of sensitive information and also to files being ‘lost’, as was the case with one of the Bahrija application files.
“Austin Walker in his capacity as chairman and CEO of MEPA, and therefore directly responsible for MEPA’s day-to-day functioning, should investigate both the loss of the Bahrija file, as well as the improper access of the Astrid Vella file,” they said.
The organisations said that while such abusive treatment should not be meted out to any environmental activist, it was pertinent to note that these groups did not receive any form of local or EU funding and both activists in question worked on a voluntary basis.
This campaign of ongoing harassment was in violation of the Aarhus Convention which specifically precluded such abuse and similar attempts to gag those who spoke about embarrassing truths.
“The harassment of those who seek to protect the environment contrasts strongly with pre-election promises that the environment was to be granted the highest level of protection.
“It is also an alarming regression in Malta's democracy and a serious threat to citizens' fundamental right to freedom of speech.
“Moreover, it is a despicable attempt to distract the public from the more serious issues which the nation is currently facing,” they said.
In a statement, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority categorically denied the NGOs allegations that one of its officials had mishandled or unethically accessed the Xaghra development application file of Ms Vella.
"All development planning applications submitted to Mepa are available to the public and can be accessed through it website," the authority said.
It called on the NGOs to substantiate and bring forward any information they had in claiming that such unethical practice had, in the past, led to leaks or possible misuse of sensitive information”.
"Such allegations are harmful when made without any evidence to the facts," Mepa said.
FAA'S REPLY TO MEPA
In a reply to Mepa's statement, NGOs said that while it was true that all development applications could be seen on the authority's website, it was almost impossible for the public to trace a permit of over 11 years ago without relevant details known only to the applicant and Mepa.
"In spite of this, several details of Ms Vella’s application were somehow traced and published.
"In addition to basic application information on the Mepa website, the files contain sensitive information which can only be viewed by Mepa staff, thus access to such files is a very serious matter."
FAA asked why since Ms Vella’s application had been dead for 11 years, with no reconsideration or appeal pending, was the file in the possession of the Mepa's former public relations officer, the very person known for crossing swords with NGOs in the past.