Updated 6.30pm, adds PL statement

The Broadcasting Authority is sticking to its guns on the controversial decision to “censor” journalists' questions during a live news conference on State television.

The regulator justified its move on grounds that it was legally obliged to prevent “unexpected questions” which might turn a broadcast containing information of national importance to a platform for political statements.

The debate was triggered last Monday when a live news conference on the COVID-19 measures, addressed by deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne and screened on TVM, was abruptly interrupted when he started taking questions from the floor.

The Institute of Maltese Journalists branded the move as “state-sponsored censorship” which was completely unacceptable for a truly democratic society.

Nationalist leadership candidate Bernard Grech also condemned the BA’s decision and requested an urgent meeting with the regulator to discuss the matter. Criticism was also levelled by NGO Repubblika.

BA justifies its stance despite criticism

In a statement issued on Wednesday, the authority said that it resorted to this measure on the strength of two rulings issued on June 16 and 26 with respect to complaints made by the PN.

The latter had sought redress after being aggrieved on the remarks made by Prime Minister Robert Abela in a news conference broadcast by TVM on May 18, saying he had used the event for partisan reasons. The PN had asked for some sort of remedy, which was granted in the form of a 10-minute message by Opposition leader Adrian Delia.

The BA had decided that unless such broadcasts were strictly on medical issues related to the outbreak, journalists’ questions would not be broadcast by TVM. However, questions would still be allowed on digital platforms and other services.

While reiterating these arguments, the BA on Wednesday remarked that such measures reflected the necessity to ensure that these broadcasts would be politically impartial by preventing “unexpected questions” from journalists.

Such measure applies for all COVID-19 news conferences addressed by politicians, it said.

The BA also noted that contrary to certain claims, its legal consultant was Prof. Ian Refalo and not lawyer Mark Vassallo, who is also legal counsel for TVM.

Media blackout is no remedy - Adrian Delia

In a statement, PN leader Adrian Delia said political imbalance should not be addressed by a media blackout or by muzzling journalists.

Delia said the imbalance was created by the prime minister’s partisan remarks and his use of the national station as a platform to gain political mileage.

The PN, he said, believes that in a democratic country, freedom of expression, especially journalists, should be guaranteed.

PL hits out at Delia

In another statement, the Labour Party hit out at Delia saying he had moved a protest each time the national station broadcast government news conference of a national interest including journalists’ questions, especially related with measures against the pandemic.

Between March and June, the PL said, the Nationalist Party moved at least 10 complaints with the natonal station or the BA because of a political imbalance paranoia.

It was following one of these complaints that the BA decided not to allow questions.

Now, because the national station was following the authority’s directive, Delia was saying there was censorship.

This led the PL to understand that the PN would not have any further objections if press conferences of a national interest were broadcast in full.

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