Thousands of euro per month paid by the MFSA last year for ‘services rendered’ by Malta Today owner Saviour Balzan, through one of his commercial companies, are currently under review, the Authority has said.
The Shift is informed that in 2019, following several meetings between “self-suspended” MFSA CEO Joseph Cuschieri and Balzan, the financial services regulator entered into a direct order agreement with Media Today for ‘positive content’ through Balzan’s publications, including Malta Today and Business Today.
MFSA sources told The Shift that several invoices, worth thousands a month, were paid to one of Balzan’s companies through a direct order that was personally approved by the embattled Head of the Authority – Cuschieri.
Asked to confirm the direct order, state its value, and give details on what was actually produced by Balzan’s media houses against payment from taxpayers’ funds, a spokesperson for the MFSA refused to give any details.
Yet the existence of such a deal was confirmed as a spokesperson said this was “under review”. Despite legal obligations, the MFSA has failed to publish the direct order given to Balzan last year.
Asked to explain this omission in the list of direct orders already published for that period, the MFSA’s spokesperson chose to throw other newsrooms under the bus, showing the deal was more widespread than was originally known.
“Earlier on this year, agreements for editorial content with Allied Newspapers Limited (publishers of The Times of Malta), Media Today and Standard Publications Limited (The Malta Independent) were included in the list of contracts awarded between January and June 2020,” the spokesperson said.
According to this list, while Malta Today apparently received another €24,000 direct order for ‘advertising services’, its rival, The Times of Malta, which has a much larger circulation than Balzan’s newspapers, received just half of Malta Today’s ‘advertising services’ with a payment of €12,000.
Even in the case of The Times of Malta, or The Malta Independent, the MFSA did not give details on what was procured.
The MFSA has embarked on an aggressive public relations exercise in the run-up to the Moneyval evaluation that risks greylisting Malta, which would have massive repercussions on the financial services industry.
Balzan’s was not the only contract which seems to have been used by Cuschieri to acquire ‘friendly’ media content.
Earlier this year, The Shift revealed how Rachel Attard, the former editor of The Malta Independent, was given a consultancy contract by Cuschieri worth €43,000 a year.
Attard, the partner of former TV host Lou Bondi now turned PR consultant for major corporate projects, was given the contract just a few weeks after leaving her post at the newspaper and becoming freelance media consultant. She continued to act as an editorial consultant for The Malta Independent while acting as a consultant to the MFSA.
The Managing Editor of Media Today has a history of pocketing government contracts and consultancies while serving as the editor and owner of an independent newspaper.
Just a few weeks ago, Balzan was named in the Government Gazette as the recipient of another €20,000 direct order from Minister Edward Zammit Lewis for consultancy and media communications strategy services.
In addition, through his company, Business 2 Business, Balzan also receives thousands of euro a week from PBS – the national broadcaster – to produce television programmes on TVM, including ‘Xtra’ aired during prime time.
So far, PBS and the government have always refused to publish the contracts Balzan was given by PBS and payments made through the Public Service Obligation budget funded by taxpayers. It is not known whether, on top of the direct payments he receives for his programmes, Balzan is also sharing advertising revenues with PBS.
Last year, The Times of Malta had also revealed other public contracts and direct orders awarded by the Labour government to Balzan and his companies.
At the peak of the controversial Central Link project, Balzan’s company was recruited by Minister Ian Borg to counter opposition on the project, against payment of some €17,000 while the Malta Today editor turned TVM host had agreed to conduct a ‘controlled interview’ about the scandalous Electrogas power station project, according to The Times of Malta.
Considered to be one of the closest journalists to Joseph Muscat’s disgraced right-hand man, Keith Schembri, Balzan had once denied receiving calls from Schembri in the early hours of the morning on the night when Daphne Caruana Galizia released information on the infamous Panama company Egrant and Pilatus Bank.
He later retracted his denial when Caruana Galizia published precise information of the various frequent phone conversations between Balzan and Schembri.
Balzan, who used to call Caruana Galizia “the queen of bile”, then publicly admitted that he used to write stories following information fed to him directly from Schembri and the OPM. He expressed “remorse” and claimed he was used, but it seems his tactics have not changed.