Malta’s two most popular independent newspapers have opened up their media platforms to make the most out of political advertising during the ongoing electoral campaign, with The Sunday Times of Malta reaching unprecedented levels never before seen in its 83-year history.
Last Sunday, readers of The Sunday Times of Malta and Malta Today were stunned to see their favourite newspapers wrapped in a full colour Labour Party “Malta Flimkien” slogan.
The move shocked readers, who expressed dismay at the “pitiful situation” of the independent media in Malta, saying that while both media outlets often criticise the lack of transparency when it comes to funding political parties, they seem to have no hesitation accepting money themselves.
The questions raised by the ads drew comparisons to the policy adopted by The Shift, which refuses to accept funding and advertisements from political parties and the government. The Shift has also blocked Google Ads featuring political content.
Sources at the Labour Party told The Shift that the decision by Allied Newspapers to accept the advertisement surprised even them, as similar attempts made during previous elections had always been turned down.
The sources said The Sunday Times of Malta’s current chief editor, Herman Grech, had no qualms about agreeing to Labour’s positioning on his newspaper as long as they paid €7,000 for the opportunity. Labour’s advertisement in Malta Today was a much cheaper €2,000, including printing costs.
Editorial standards have also changed at what was once Malta’s most venerable newspaper, with ‘sponsored-content’ — articles paid by advertisers — being published on behalf of clients that have included government ministries, disgraced former minister Konrad Mizzi, and the government of China, which used the newspaper to celebrate communist rule. Propaganda pieces by Maltese ministries are paid for using taxpayers’ funds.
The paper’s owner, Allied Newspapers, suffered severe financial setbacks at a time when print media was already in decline due to the rise of digital media. A questionable decision to invest €30 million in a new printing press from Kasco Ltd, a company owned by Joseph Muscat’s former chief of staff Keith Schembri, brought the business to the brink of financial ruin, and resulted in allegations of kickbacks between Hillman and Schembri.
An internal probe commissioned by the same Board of Directors that approved the investment did not find proof of corruption, and the report remains unpublished.
While Allied Newspapers was struggling financially, Saviour Balzan raked in more than a million euros of taxpayers’ money through PBS programme fees and government contracts between 2015 and 2020, all while operating a private media business – Business 2 Business Ltd – that was awarded at least 30 separate contracts to provide media and editorial consultancy and services to ministers, effectively making Balzan a government-funded spin doctor.
In the latest development revealed by The Shift, Balzan was given the lease of a government factory at the Mosta Technolpark in 2020 for €1, excluding VAT.