Culture Minister Owen Bonnici has praised an EU plan to make it harder for governments to use public broadcasters as propaganda vehicles.

But when asked whether he intended to propose local legislation to insulate PBS from state interference, Bonnici said that while “Malta is in favour" of the EU proposal, experts are still combing through the various clauses put forward.

“In general terms, as a minister for culture, when we met in the council, I explained that Malta is in favour of such a proposal. It is a positive development but, of course, we need to let the process take its course and we are going to actively contribute to the debate.

“It is something positive, we are four-square behind the commission in securing more media freedom and a better media landscape,” he said.

What is the EU plan?

The European Media Freedom Act, presented to member states by the European Commission last September, seeks to protect editorial independence, ensure transparency in state advertising and requires member states to run pluralism tests to protect against media monopolies.

It also seeks to make it easier for journalists to protect their sources and simplify the process by which consumers can discover who owns any particular media outlet.

Owen Bonnici speaks at the EU Council. Video: EU Council

The provisions that could impact Malta most directly, however, are those that relate to ensuring the independence of public media.

A Europe-wide study by the Centre for Media, Data and Society published in October classified Malta’s PBS as 'state-controlled'

Under the EMFA, member states would have to provide adequate and stable funding for public media and ensure that such media offers a “plurality of information and opinions, in an impartial manner”.

The draft law would also require governments to appoint the head and governing board of public service media through transparent, non-discriminatory public calls.

Malta’s public broadcaster, PBS, has for years been accused of favouring the government of the day. Its top jobs are traditionally filled by insiders close to the party in government, rather than by public call.

A Europe-wide study by the Centre for Media, Data and Society published in October classified Malta’s PBS as “state-controlled”.

What is Malta's state broadcasting challenge?

Currently, PBS – which operates TVM, TVM+ and Radju Malta – is headed by Charles Dalli, who was appointed editor in January. Norma Saliba, who previously held that post, retains responsibility as head of the PBS newsroom. Its online news coordinator, Owen Galea, previously served as head of news at Labour media outlet ONE as well as a communications executive at the Office of the Prime Minister.

Apart from those appointments, the public broadcaster has refused to disclose the names of its three-person editorial board and is also appealing a Freedom of Information request by The Shift to publish contracts handed to its executive chairman, Mark Sammut, and board secretary Mark Vassallo.

Asked about this, Bonnici said he disagreed with criticism there is lack of independence at the public broadcaster. When Times of Malta pointed out the PBS newsroom tends to be mainly manned by people close to the government of the day, Bonnici said there are “mixed CVs” at TVM.

He was also quick to point out that he is not involved in the day-to-day running of the newsroom.

“The new law is about strengthening independence from an institutional point of view, for instance, the appointment of board members at PBS,” he said.

'PBS need a governance shake-up' – Evarist Bartolo

Complaints about imbalance in PBS news coverage drove the PN to file a constitutional case alleging bias in the state broadcaster last February.

In a Times of Malta interview last April, former Labour minister Evarist Bartolo said PBS needed a governance shake-up “so that the broadcaster does not remain the government’s mouthpiece”.

Despite those concerns, the government has shown no inclination to shield the broadcaster from state interference.

Minister Bonnici, however, spoke effusively about EU plans to do just that when he was doorstepped following an EU Council meeting earlier this week.

“We need to study this plan and move it ahead. It’s important to have this debate, to help improve broadcasting freedoms at European level,” Bonnici said. 

PN MEP candidate Peter Agius was the first to highlight the apparent incongruence between Bonnici’s words at the EU Council meeting and the government’s stance.

“Here in Brussels, Bonnici speaks like a champion of the free press. Then, in Malta, he works to ensure everything remains hidden and under control. Isn’t that hypocrisy,” Agius asked.

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