In 1806, Napoleon, by decree, abolished the festivity of the Assumption of Our Lady celebrated according to the Catholic calendar on August 15. Actually, that day also happened to be Napoleon’s birthday.
What irritated him most, at the height of his power and splendour, were the words in the Magnificat recited in the Catholic liturgy of that feast day: “He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.” He therefore decided to censor Our Lady’s prayer by abolishing her feast day.
Last April, the pope visited Malta. The pope delivered at least three sermons and speeches: his message was loud and clear.
Society should fight corruption, protect the environment and, like our forefathers did 2,000 years ago, show the utmost kindness to those who reach our shores.
In a pastoral visit, the pope never mentions names whether of corrupt politicians or incompetent enforcement authorities. Even during the current war in Ukraine, the pope never mentioned Vladimir Putin’s name once, but everyone understood to whom he was directing the message.
Amazingly, in Malta, the state television PBS ignored the pope’s message. They, of course, reported who met the pope, including the names of all the ministers, junior ministers and others who bowed to kiss the Fisherman’s ring but no mention was made of the pope’s clear message which was not to the government’s liking. Everyone heard the message, but PBS chose to ignore it or better still censor it.
This reflects the pitiful state of public broadcasting in Malta. A weak and pusillanimous Broadcasting Authority, whose majority of members are appointed by the government of day, supervises public broadcasting by letting sleeping dogs lie and being somnolent in the process as well.
The time has come to create two television channels, both closely monitored by an independent Broadcasting Authority- Tonio Borg
When former premier Joseph Muscat transformed the traditional end of the year message into a propaganda exercise, with video clips of him visiting families lauding his actions and screenshots giving the illusion of Malta as a paradise island, the authority, in this age of modern and instant communications, stated that it did not interfere with the way things are communicated.
When the prime minister, availing himself of a press conference at prime time on the COVID pandemic, indulged in a political exercise of defending his ministers on non-health matters, announcing new government projects and criticising the opposition, the authority chose to wash its hands and refused a proper right of reply to the opposition.
Only last June, the court found that the blatant discrimination in state broadcasting against the opposition amounted to a breach of freedom of expression and protection from discrimination, a first in our human rights jurisprudence.
The court also found that PBS had indeed ignored to implement orders given by the Broadcasting Authority, the latter being also found guilty of dereliction of duty.
This pitiful state in public broadcasting can only be changed through radical means. First of all, the government should no longer enjoy the power to dominate, through appointments, the authority itself.
If no agreement is reached on the chairperson of the authority between the political parties, that position should be filled by a person appointed by the president of Malta.
Secondly, the time has come to create two television channels, both scrupulously and closely monitored by an independent Broadcasting Authority. These channels should be led one by persons who enjoy the trust of the government, the other by persons enjoying the trust of the opposition.
Alternatively, on the basis of the Swedish model, one could denationalise state television completely, allowing a private foundation, represented by different players in public life, strictly monitored by the authority to provide a national broadcasting service and partly financed by public funds.
Thirdly, the financial and human resources of the authority should be increased so that real supervision and monitoring of broadcasting services can take place and immediate action taken.
A condition of any broadcasting licence shall include one to the effect that all broadcasting service providers shall immediately obey any order issued by the authority under pain of sanctions being imposed, save for a right of redress before a court of law.
These are only a few proposals which should form the basis of a discussion for the future. Any such reform would instil credibility and trust in the public broadcasting and reduce the need of each political party having its own TV station.
As things stand today, if PBS felt comfortable to censor Pope Francis, one can only imagine what it does in practice with reporting of events held by the opposition and bodies in opposition to the government.
It is true that PBS has till now ‘only’ censored the pope. It has never gagged the message of Our Lady. But… you never know.
Tonio Borg is a former European Commissioner and deputy prime minister.
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