The situation at TVM reached new lows last week, after a memo from CEO Mark Sammut requested producers to seek approval from PBS management on topics to be discussed and guests to be invited. In addition to this strict, draconian measure, producers will need to have their topic and guest list vetted two weeks in advance.

That any state broadcaster in the world is bound to follow its master’s orders is a given. However, the TVM board has decided to take things a step further, in what appears to be a concerted effort to weaken the broadcaster’s functions.

In fact, Sammut’s memo comes in the wake of the controversial decision to move news and current affairs programmes to TVM News+.

This not only cleared the path for TVM to become a channel solely based on entertainment but also bundled news programmes to a new channel without any existing following. The infamous memo effectively forbids the few independent producers left from discussing “current” affairs until two weeks later, after most incidents have moved out of the limelight.

It also insults the integrity and independence of TVM’s own journalists, some of whom host their own programmes. While it is the duty of any journalist to report factually, asking tough questions to guests on TV falls squarely within their remit.

It is also a gigantic disservice to the Maltese audiences who, for years, have survived on a staple of low-quality entertainment and biased reporting. By limiting televised discussions to approval with a minimum two-week time frame, TVM has effectively killed any form of debate, rendering the term “current affairs” completely obsolete and, therefore, removing the key functions of information and education from its airwaves.

The present Broadcasting Authority regulations are based on the arbitrary rule of equal representation between the two main political parties, thus disenfranchising any other political party or civil society. In recent years, the latter has taken the shape of an opposition to the political duopoly in many fields of interest and will inevitably be worse off under the new regime. Again, the public broadcaster is going directly against the idea of civil representation, by severely limiting the time windows, topics to be discussed and the filtering of the guests on each show.

In a truly free and democratic society, one should expect a plurality of voices on national TV, especially the dissenting ones. A shift in mentality is needed: journalists, hosts, panelists and producers should be given space on national TV, while declaring their partisan or ideological balance. It would then be up to the audience to decide who to follow, as is every citizen’s right in a pluralistic society.

The recent changes to TVM and its framework are incomprehensible under another aspect. In the last months of the Gonzi administration, friendly TV presenters and journalists were given top prime-time slots, which were largely used for pro-PN propaganda. However, those were understood as signs of a fortress crumbling with paranoia as the impending electoral defeat loomed large.

Conversely, Robert Abela’s administration finds itself leading by a comfortable margin in the surveys and has the luxury of being more open to criticism. Why Labour is choosing to cut down on dissent with such a gap between the parties is a mystery, unless it is a by-product of that same paranoia.

Carmelo Abela’s recent statement about the “excessive” memo needs to be followed up by actions, not only in the name of freedom of speech but also to ensure that the state broadcaster fulfils its obligations to inform, educate and entertain.

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