The co-owner of Media Today, Saviour Balzan, has been awarded another television programme aired on TVM and supported by taxpayer money.
Balzan is the executive producer of the series, ‘Vetturi fil-Garaxx’, the new 30-minute television production aired on the public broadcaster and presented by Paul Cocks – already on Balzan’s payroll at Malta Today.
The weekly programme is the latest TV production given to Saviour Balzan and financed through the Public Service Obligation (PSO), which is meant to finance programmes that are deemed to be providing a service to the public, and hence eligible for such financing even if they are not commercially viable and with limited advertising revenue potential.
State company PBS has so far refused to reveal how much Balzan is receiving in the way of public funds for his various TV productions, despite their limited audience reach according to the latest Broadcasting Authority figures.
PBS refused a Freedom of Information request by The Shift, claiming the information was ‘commercially sensitive’.
Sources close to the public broadcaster told The Shift that Balzan, 59, is receiving tens of thousands in public funds for his programmes, which include a current affairs programme in which he often gives a platform to certain Labour ministers who also happen to be his clients through another company owned by Balzan, Business 2 Business Ltd.
Information on the precise amount Balzan is receiving from public funds could not be independently verified since the Freedom of Information request was refused.
An analysis by The Shift estimated that Balzan received more than €1 million in payments from the government and other public entities between 2015 and 2020, including through some 30 contracts, mostly by direct order, for public relations consultancy jobs.
The government is also seeking to avoid publishing the details of these contracts, notwithstanding the ruling given by the Data Protection Commissioner, and is mounting challenges to decisions made by the Commissioner following various requests made by The Shift under the Freedom of Information Act. Among the entities involved in 30 cases before the Appeals Tribunal are the Gozo Ministry and the Education Ministry.
The latest business venture by Balzan saw him incorporating a new company, Pelagicus Media, through which he is being assigned TVM programmes such as ‘Vetturi fil-Garaxx’. This company is then getting a multiplier effect for these public funds by hiring services from Balzan’s other companies, Business 2 Business and Media Today, maximising the profit element of public funds given to cover operating costs for his business interests.
Keith Schembri, the former chief of staff of disgraced former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who is known to have had an open channel of communication with Balzan, testified in court in 2020 that the co-owner of Media Today used to regularly go to him asking for TV programmes, as well as “lobbying” for certain companies.
Despite his many apparent conflicts of interest and breaches of journalistic ethics, Balzan was selected to form part of the committee set up to see the implementation of the public inquiry recommendations on media reform. Balzan was one of the most vicious critics of assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, whom he publicly derided, even conning the term “Queen of Bile”.
Nine international press freedom organisations have criticised the selection process and stressed the need for transparency in the committee’s operations.
According to a government statement, the committee has been given two months to examine and eventually rubberstamp six draft legislative amendments already prepared, which already goes against the recommendations of the public inquiry.
Other than the list, none of the texts of these has been made public, notwithstanding one of them being the setting-up of a ‘Committee for the Recommendation of Measures for the Protection of Journalists, Other Media Actors and Persons in Public Life, composed of the Commissioner of Police as Chairperson of the Committee, the Head of the Malta Security Service and the Commander of the Armed Forces of Malta’.
This committee has already started functioning, according to the government statement, albeit without the necessary legal basis.