Top PBS officials shirked responsibility for decisions that landed the state broadcaster in court when they testified this week.
The officials were testifying in a case filed by the Nationalist Party alleging that its rights were breached by the public broadcaster’s political bias and propaganda.
Despite a marathon four-hour court session on Friday, information about who actually took decisions leading to the PN’s complaints, and why, remained elusive.
PBS executive chairman Mark Sammut and head of news Norma Saliba, minister Carmelo Abela and the broadcaster’s head of sales were all unable to answer questions about those decisions.
The first issue flagged by the PN was the fact that it took PBS three months to publish a right of reply which the party won after twice seeking recourse before the Broadcasting Authority.
That issue revolved around the newly inaugurated Marsa flyover project and its coverage on the public channels.
In that case, the broadcasting regulator had concluded that an interview about the project aired on PBS show TVAM was “rather extensive and may have amounted to propaganda.” It ordered PBS to publish a right of reply sent in by the PN.
But PBS ignored that direction, prompting a second complaint to the authority by the PN, which resulted in a penalty of €4660 for PBS.
The authority’s directive was finally implemented, but meanwhile three months had lapsed since the PN’s original complaint in April 2021.
The second issue flagged by the party concerned political advertising spots.
While PBS had complied with a Broadcasting Authority order to air 15 minutes’ worth of 30-second PN adverts during prime time, the party was aggrieved as PBS had sandwiched those adverts in between government ads.
That decision practically “neutralised” the PN ads, the party complained.
It subsequently filed proceedings against the authority, the state broadcaster, minister Carmelo Abela and the State Advocate, seeking a remedy for alleged breach of its right to freedom of expression and protection against discrimination.
Mark Sammut: Editorial 'is a no-go zone for me'
When repeatedly asked for an explanation about such decisions, PBS executive chairman Mark Sammut insisted that his role was purely administrative and economic and that he had nothing to do with editorial matters.
“It’s a no-go zone to me,” said Sammut when pressed at the witness stand by lawyers Paul Borg Olivier and Francis Zammit Dimech.
“What did you do to ensure that decisions by the BA were implemented and in good time?”
“I made no decision and I tried to make no decision regarding content,” insisted Sammut, while admitting that he had personally not agreed with the authority’s decision on the Marsa flyover issue.
Further questioning along the same lines by the applicant’s lawyers ultimately prompted Edward Gatt, one of the respondents’ lawyers, to request clear direction by the judge.
Mr Justice Grazio Mercieca noted the useless repetition of questions and reserved the right to take action, ultimately remarking, “Nafu x’għamel. M’għamel xejn.” (We know what he [Sammut] did. He did nothing.)
Norma Saliba: 'I discuss everything with management'
Yet when the PBS official in charge of editorial affairs, Norma Saliba, testified, she too said that she was not the one who took the decision to not air the PN right of reply.
That decision was communicated to the “tmexxija tal-PBS” and it was to be implemented by management, replied Saliba.
But when asked who at management level had decided not to implement that BA directive, Saliba said, “I cannot recall names. It was a year ago. We discussed it internally and PBS did not agree with the BA decision.”
In fact a position was taken to contest that decision and a judicial letter was filed in court.
As for the issue of political spots, Saliba was asked whether those were discussed with the editor.
“I discuss everything with the management at PBS (tmexxija tal-PBS),” the witness replied.
Asked whether she could produce minutes of meetings with management, Saliba first said that she would “ask management,” but within seconds added that she “did not keep minutes” and that “minutes were not kept.”
“In one minute she gave two different replies,” observed Zammit Dimech.
Head of sales: adverts and ‘fillers’
The distinction between the two types of advertising spots was explained by PBS head of sales Ramona Mamo Degiovanni, who said that whereas booked adverts were scheduled according to clients’ requests, other spots were manually inserted.
Under the public service obligation agreement, PBS was bound to publish government “informative” spots, the witness said. Those “fillers” were not paid adverts and were handled by PBS’ transmissions department.
But when asked for specific names, the witness replied that she had no names to give.
“Sorry. It’s not my job.”
Carmelo Abela: “Only as a tv viewer”
Minister Carmelo Abela, who was summoned as licensor, testified that he “did not interfere in editorial issues.”
His role as minister was “clear” and he only abided by that role “as others did before me,” said Abela, “…and Zammit Dimech knows that.”
Asked whether he had done something when PBS ignored the Authority’s directive for three whole months, Abela’s non-hesitant reply was that the BA was “an independent authority” and he would never interfere.
But he knew that the directive was implemented and he knew that “as a TV viewer.”
“Did the PN or anyone else ask the Minister to take steps?” prompted lawyer Edward Gatt, his question echoed by lawyer Chris Cilia.
“No,” replied the minister.
“And to avoid any misinterpretation, let me make it clear that I did not interfere from the very start.”
The case continues next week.
Lawyers Paul Borg Olivier and Francis Zammit Dimech are assisting the applicant, represented by party general secretary Michael Piccinino.State Advocate Chris Soler, together with lawyers Carina Bugeja Testa, Ian Refalo and Mark Vassallo are also representing the respondents.