Calling political party station case a ‘PR stunt’ misunderstands positive impact for democracy

To dismiss online news portal Lovin Malta’s court case aiming to annul a proviso in the Broadcasting Act as a “public relations stunt” is to misunderstand the work involved and the “huge positive impact” it could have for Malta’s democracy, Lovin Malta founder and CEO Christian Peregin told The Shift.

Peregin was replying to questions about criticism aimed at the action – which could end the opportunity that political party broadcasting stations, such as NET TV and ONE have, to bypass the principle of impartiality. The action has been criticised, unsurprisingly by political party factions, as a “public relations stunt”.

Peregin said the action is “a highly impactful form of crowdfunded journalistic action, the likes of which Malta has never seen before”.

The application, signed by lawyers Evelyn Borg Costanzi and Matthew Cutajar, argued that the proviso clashes with the Constitution and allows stations owned by political parties to bypass impartiality. Malta is the only EU country which has party-owned channels that dominate the media landscape.

Peregin seemed hopeful about the case. “We feel we should win because the Constitution on this matter is crystal clear, as were the intentions of the legislators in 1991 to go against the Constitution,” he told The Shift.

He added that even if the case is lost, the importance of discussing the matter still stands. “Do we want media to be as impartial and independent as possible or are we ok with this incestuousness between media operator, regulator and legislator? Are we ok with our political system having degenerated into a competition between two bankrupt media companies that depend on big business donations?” he asked.

Some of the witnesses listed for the case include former Presidents Eddie Fenech Adami and George Abela, and former European Court of Human Rights Judge Giovanni Bonello.

Proviso ‘denies Malta opportunity to mature as democracy’

In a statement on Tuesday, the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation expressed its support for the action, also arguing that the proviso “denies Malta the opportunity to mature as a democracy”.

They said that the Constitutional obligation for broadcasters to be impartial in matters of political or industrial controversy, or issues relating to current public policy, should apply across the broadcast spectrum without any exceptions.

“Challenging its constitutional validity is a step towards the democracy the country deserves,” they concluded.

The Shift also fully supports Lovin Malta’s action.

The legislation was introduced in 1991 and allowed the broadcasting watchdog to “close an eye to political party stations when it comes to the Constitutional obligation for broadcasters to be as impartial as possible,” Peregin said in a social media post.

He noted that, at the time, Opposition leader Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici had warned that the Broadcasting Act would one day be challenged in court.

Although the Broadcasting Authority must ensure impartiality, according to the Constitution, the Act states that “the Authority shall be able to consider the general output of programmes provided by the various broadcasting licensees and contractors, together as a whole”- which gave room for party-owned media to function with the idea of balancing each other out.

The applicants argued that “The Constitution of Malta speaks about rightful impartiality among broadcasting services provided in Malta, not on balance… this means that the Constitution, unequivocally, calls for any station transmitting issues of political or industrial controversy, or that refers to current public policy, ought to be impartial, whether the station is public or private.

Why now?

Asked what triggered the action, Peregin said it was originally made within the context of an EU directive that placed online audiovisual content under the direct jurisdiction of the Broadcasting Authority. This Directive was designed to ensure that TV regulations were not circumvented by audiovisual broadcasters online.

“It was intended to create a level playing field between big TV networks in Europe and the smaller online producers who were eating into their advertising pie without the same regulatory pressures,” he explained.

Meanwhile, Malta’s Broadcasting Authority is composed only of representatives from the two political parties – who themselves own and operate the two main TV stations.

“This created a dangerous legal predicament for media producers like Lovin Malta. Suddenly we were being regulated by our larger competitors, who also have the added benefits of writing laws, deciding which ones should be enforced, not filing their public accounts, and receiving disproportionate government advertising and taxpayer funding (at least €180,000 per month),” he said.

The Broadcasting Authority must start by reforming itself, removing itself from political party control and start properly enforcing the Constitution which clearly demands impartiality in broadcasting, Peregin said.

                           
                               
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