The change from the local broadcasting entity Xandir Malta to PBS was in name only, opposition media spokesman Evarist Bartolo said yesterday, stressing that broadcasting had remained under government control. He said PBS was more like the Zimbabwe Broadcasting, controlled by President Robert Mugabe, rather than the BBC.

Mr Bartolo was speaking during the debate on the second reading of the Broadcasting Act (Amendment) Bill, which transposes into Maltese law the provisions of a European Parliament and European Council directive. He said there were already instances of breach of the EU directive.

The working group on how the directive would affect broadcasting in Malta had been very active in European circles, but equally disappointed when only one individual had given it any feedback after it had sought all-round consultation.

This very passive approach was all the more evident in the fact that many who were active in broadcasting in Malta had no idea, or were barely conscious, of the directive's important contents. This was a bad way to work as a nation because broadcasting in Malta needed practices, not lip-service. Since the National Policy on Broadcasting had been launched five years ago no changes had been made in policy or implementation. Broadly speaking, the name had simply been changed to Public Broadcasting Services, but little else.

Mr Bartolo said the first model of the British Broadcasting Corporation, the oldest public broadcaster by royal charter, had included protection from political interference. In Malta, broadcasting still pointed to control by the party in government.

On the other hand, the British had historically used broadcasting to control their colonies. In the post-colonial phase broadcasting had been taken over by national governments and used in the same way as by the imperial government, but for national ends.

Although there were other countries that had stepped out on really independent broadcasting, broadcasting in Malta was closer to the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation than to the BBC.

Extensive studies showed that in state broadcasting the authorities of the day directly controlled recruitment and financing, content and programmes. In a truly public service, the media system had a legislative framework that placed them in the hands of public authority not controlled by the government of the day or economic considerations.

Malta was squarely in the area of state broadcasting. It still needed to evolve from state to public broadcasting and was not even close to the European model, with Italy not being taken into consideration because its a situation of complete anomaly.

Five years ago Malta had chosen the worst broadcasting model. Unlike Minister Cristina, Minister Austin Gatt had looked only at the bottom line. But public broadcasting must be given a legal structure without undue reference to commercial considerations.

Mr Bartolo said both parties must show a strong political will to free broadcasting in Malta from political control. The best way to learn who controlled broadcasting was to see who recruited personnel.

The country would get nowhere if the opposition left everything as it was with a view to controlling when it was returned to power. This was also an indication that democracy was still lagging behind. Serious public broadcasting gave space to all, not just to political strength.

There was enough proof of wrongdoing, and all this pointed to weak regulation by the Malta Broadcasting Authority, which was subject to political control. Most of its decisions did not reflect autonomy but an eye to possible political reaction.

The EU directive said that news and current affairs programmes should not be sponsored, but this was an area where Malta had been breaching this directive at least since its accession to the EU - and the MBA knew well about this breach. It had prepared a letter on the topic but held it back because of the political stations.

If Malta did not agree with such a scenario it should have shown this when the directive was being drafted and sought to convince 26 other nations or requested a derogation, but now that the directive was effective it must be followed.

Mr Bartolo said this part of the directive seemed to be destined to continue being breached, because it had not even been mentioned in the debate. People in authority did not even know of this proviso, but this was to be blamed on mediocrity, not on the working group. Malta must be serious and credible about keeping its promises. If it was thought that adopting the directive would mean unviable broadcasting in Malta, action should be taken now.

Mr Bartolo said that programmes produced by Where's Everybody?, for example, would succumb almost immediately if they were not sponsored. But WE were not the only ones in breach of the directive. Admittedly they were now bigger than PBS itself - the proverbial tail wagging the god.

Broadcasting in Malta had been left under political control but also opened up to commercial pressure, making it a prostitute twice over.

Malta would be kidding only itself if it did nothing about the situation. If politicians wanted the country to mature democratically they needed to sit down and take decisions now.

Whoever had written the national policy document five years ago had been conscious of the state of affairs. The PBS mission statement to serve the general public and its various sectors made fantastic reading, but how much of it was being achieved? Results did not depend on documents but on everyday decisions.

Mr Bartolo said the practice at PBS under News Editor Natalino Fenech belied all good intentions. All values were thrown overboard when something could show up the government in a bad light. This did not do justice to public broadcasting that was independent of political interference of all powers in the country. His appointment with a very good financial package made independence difficult.

Over the years Prof. Joseph Pirotta had given enough proof of his allegiance to the party in government. There could be no political independence with such people in such sensitive positions, continued Mr Bartolo.

WE had great clout with total flagrant interests at PBS. He said he would not be surprised at some cosmetic touches to get around the directive. They made hundreds of thousands of euros in contracts from the government, then expected to be seen as credible and impartial in current affairs programmes. This was their dominant agenda in favour of the PN, even by omission in programmes not produced in spite of their value.

The emphasis was on controlling damage to the government.

Mr Bartolo said that anyone who did not want to discuss these things would be wanting democracy and development only up to a certain point, with an agenda far from the public interest. It was very important to see what would happen with the rest of the system of broadcasting in Malta, which could be given a new future only through courage and vision.

When the MBA was requested a licence for any private broadcasting project it should seriously examine its financial viability.

Mr Bartolo remained in possession of the House when the debate was suspended at 9 p.m.

The Bill was introduced by education Minister Dolores Cristina. Her contribution will be reported tomorrow.

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