Opposition spokesman on the media Gino Cauchi yesterday warned Public Broadcasting Services chairman Joe Mizzi that there would be problems between the PL and PBS if the national station’s officials failed to regulate themselves and act with impartiality.

Mr Cauchi, who was speaking during the debate in second reading of the Bill amending the Broadcasting Act said that a high PBS official had used an ultra-partisan tone in correspondence exchanged with the PL. Such a tone is not even used in correspondence between the two major political parties.

He said that the chairman’s reply to his complaint was not reassuring and therefore called for action to be taken to see that things were done well and did not leave room for some to do whatever they liked.

He said that imbalance against the PL was rampant and manifestly in the open. It was used to serve the party in government.

Some people in the news section were not of good quality and were either PN supporters or catered only to serve the interests of the PN. These employees replaced good broadcasters who had been made redundant in the restructuring process. People could verify and compare on how events were reported by the national station and other media. Administrators, editorial boards and advisers for PBS were paid thousand of euros from taxpayers’ money and were obliged to ensure impartial broadcasting.

Mr Cauchi also said that to date the opposition did not have trust in the Malta Broadcasting Authority chairman Anthony J. Tabone because, as a former chairman of PBS, he had acted in favour of the Nationalist government.

If he wanted to regain the opposition’s trust, then the BA chairman had to give proof that he was acting independently.

He said that the opposition had shown political maturity in agreeing to the chairmanship of a number of constitutional authorities. The government had not sought agreement with the opposition on the BA chairmanship at a time when an election was approaching. The opposition was disillusioned with this situation.

Earlier, Mr Cauchi said that, although the amendments were not controversial, the Bill was very controversial with regard to the broadcasting situation in Malta.

Broadcasting was very important in a democracy and he agreed with Dr de Marco that this was the most important amendment in this sector after the introduction of pluralism. He criticised the way the government was administrating this sector. The responsibility of the broadcasting sector was split between the Prime Minister, Parliamentary Secretary de Marco and Minister Dolores Cristina.

Furthermore the broadcasting sector was controlled by two different authorities – the Communications Authority and the Broadcasting Authority – together with the Public Broadcasting Service. This situation had to be addressed and the responsibility of the broadcasting sector had to be better defined.

Mr Cauchi said the Bill would bring about advances in technological developments and would help improve broadcasting. However, due to the situation created, pluralism was being reversed.

He said that the situation wasn’t as perfect as Dr de Marco had portrayed it. It was very confusing and complicated. So much so that many had complained that local television stations would now be reduced to production houses or content providers.

In 2009, 16 per cent of Maltese households used the free-to-air system. These people could not be ignored and the advance in technology should not result in extra costs for such households.

Back in 2005, the Malta Communications Authority had published a document related to digital terrestrial television which gave guidelines on the transition from an analogue to a digital system. Six years later, Malta was still discussing this transition.

This document said that the main aim of this changeover was to increase television stations. Through this new system, Malta would be entitled to 19 stations. The plan was to use 16 stations and leave three stations free.

However, during negotiations with other countries, this was reduced to nine. This was further revised down to two frequencies. Malta was now facing a situation where it would be using just one frequency for digital television while the second frequency would be held in reserve for future HD transmissions.

The frequency which would now be used would only be able to transmit six channels. This created a situation whereby it would be impossible to introduce new stations. Furthermore, Malta currently had seven television stations: PBS, Channel 22, Net, Smash, One, Calypso and Favourite TV. This meant that either Calypso or Favourite would have to be left out. This certainly did not favour pluralism.

Mr Cauchi said that there were eight applications for serving as network operators qualifying also as GIOs under the process launched by the MCA and MBA. The three chosen included PBS, Multiplus and Go. Eventually it resulted that PBS was chosen as the only network operator but entered in a joint venture with Go which in the meantime had absorbed Multiplus.

The rest of Mr Cauchi’s speech will be carried tomorrow.