Journalists who work for TVM are allowed to do little “proper” journalism and are discouraged from pursuing stories that could potentially embarrass the government, according to past and present reporters for the national broadcasting station.

Times of Malta spoke to four reporters for this story, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of recriminations.

They all complained TVM’s news had been relegated to a government noticeboard and that proper journalism is being stifled at the Public Broadcasting Services newsroom.

There was no distinction between the station and the government, they claimed, with the fine line between the two often ignored.

No distinction between the station and the government

“We cannot work on proper stories because the TVM news bulletin has become a government noticeboard,” one journalist complained.

“If you watch the news, it’s constantly ‘he said, she said’. News items are usually a promotion of government events.

“There’s no investigative journalism involved, and any initiative is simply discouraged.”

The situation has led to a lack of enthusiasm among journalists to pursue stories which they believe to be in the national interest.

They spoke up after it emerged that TVM was shifting its news programmes to a new channel, leaving the official state broadcaster with hardly any news content.

The reporters said they were never consulted about TVMnews+, which will broadcast news, sports and discussion programmes all day, even though they will be the ones creating content to fill the airtime.

The PBS newsroom is composed of two coordinators and 10 journalists, apart from a separate team of another four operating the website. 

'Newsroom regulated by strict broadcasting rules'

When contacted, PBS executive chairman Mark Sammut told Times of Malta that the newsroom at the state broadcaster was fully autonomous and regulated by strict broadcasting rules governing political balance and the observance of impartiality.

He also pointed out that PBS has an editorial board.

“We have some of the most competent and hard-working journalists on the island. Among them are also award-winning journalists. Therefore, I cannot agree with your statement that there is no proper journalism at TVM,” Sammut said.

He added: “PBS strongly believes in its journalists and in the production houses it collaborates with, and the introduction of TVMnews+ will provide another platform for them to expose their work at the highest level. This will indeed put more scrutiny on our station.”

Complaints about imbalance and lack of impartiality in PBS news bulletins and programmes have been rife for several months.

In January last year, shortly before being elected as the new leader of the Labour Party, Robert Abela promised a shake-up at the national broadcaster.

“Who truly leads PBS today? Even though they aren’t part of PBS, they are pulling the strings from behind the scenes... if I win, I’ll implement the necessary changes,” he had said on TVM discussion programme Realtà.

BA decisions against TVM

A Times of Malta analysis of Broadcasting Authority (BA) decisions in the past year shows PBS was found guilty of some form or other of imbalance on at least eight occasions, a substantial increase over previous years.

Since July 2020, the TVM newsroom has been headed by journalist Norma Saliba.

Last October, PBS was fined almost €3,500 because current affairs programme Popolin was being sponsored when it should not have been.

A month later, PBS was found guilty of imbalance over reporting of an incident involving PN MP Jason Azzopardi in court.

Guilty of some form or other of imbalance on at least eight occasions

In January, the BA upheld a complaint by the PN over the fact TVM news had completely ignored the testimony of former prime minister Joseph Muscat in the constitutional case filed in court by former PN leader Adrian Delia over the concession of the three state hospitals to Vitals.

The BA found that the hearing was in the public interest and should have been reported.

In March, the BA again upheld a PN complaint over imbalance created with the coverage of a press conference by the prime minister regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.

It ordered the public broadcaster to give the PN equal airtime.

The authority also ruled against the coverage given to the opening of the Marsa flyover junction, saying it could have resulted in a strong element of government propaganda. 

In May, the BA ruled against PBS over a complaint by MP Jason Azzopardi.

The BA ordered TVM news to read a right of reply by Azzopardi, but this was never accepted by the PBS management, resulting in the BA imposing a fine of €4,660. The fine was then revised upwards to €5,592 when PBS continued to ignore the BA ruling.  

In June, the broadcasting watchdog ordered the national television station to air a feature on the "real situation" in prison and which “respects people’s intelligence” after it upheld a complaint that a feature broadcast in April lacked objectivity. 

The Broadcasting Authority ordered Public Broadcasting Services to engage "an independent and impartial producer" to prepare a three-minute feature about the Corradino Correctional Facility within one week. 

It was ruling on a complaint by the Dean for the Faculty of Social Wellbeing, Andrew Azzopardi, and Xarabank presenter Peppi Azzopardi over a promotional feature produced by the Correctional Services Agency and broadcast during the programme Popolin, which gave the wrong impression about the real situation at the prisons.

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