The man formerly responsible for trampling on the free expression of protestors is now in charge of the public broadcaster.
As justice minister, Owen Bonnici was found guilty by the Constitutional Court of breaching the human rights of citizens protesting for justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Judge Joseph Zammit Mckeon described Bonnici’s orders to the Cleansing Department to remove their protest memorial — night after night, for two years — as a “systematic method” of hindrance that should have never taken place.
Bonnici refused to resign, of course. Who resigns in Malta? He claimed the judgement against him was proof that the country’s institutions were working. His bungling was worse somehow because, as a lawyer and justice minister, he didn’t seem to understand the basic laws he had violated.
Bonnici was also one of the government’s most strident opponents of the independent public inquiry into Caruana Galizia’s assassination. He travelled to Strasbourg in April 2019 with then-Attorney General Peter Grech to tell the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe why he believed such an inquiry could not take place.
Partisan need trumped public good. His Cabinet colleagues — indeed, his Labour Party — were being embarrassed by having a light shone on their own corruption, and they wanted it all to go away. The Constitutional Court ruling against him was simply a burden he carried for the Party.
As the minister responsible for broadcasting, Bonnici is tasked with ensuring the public broadcaster fulfills its constitutional mandate of impartiality.
Its track record under Labour does not give cause for optimism.
The Shift carried out an analysis in 2018 that revealed the public broadcaster consistently under-reported scandals involving the government, the Labour Party, and even Pilatus Bank. There was no difference between the reporting coverage pattern of ONE and TVM; both under-reported the same embarrassing news items.
Ignoring stories that are in the public interest is bad enough, but partisan control of the Public Broadcasting Service doesn’t stop at censorship. It also took orders from the Labour Party’s propaganda department.
Leaked emails from Electrogas exposed PBS’s ‘news coordinator’ as being “always open to ideas and suggestions as to how best to work” — in other words, ready and willing to have news dictated by the government.
The project was on shaky ground and needed a PR boost, and so government communications aides worked with the company to spin the arrival of the FSU tanker and the first shipment of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Malta as a historic moment.
Kind of like the arrival of the Santa Maria Convoy, but with gas for an energy-starved nation rather than desperately needed food. Oh, the heroism! It’s enough to make you weep.
Anyway, the advertising agency working with Electrogas suggested that footage of the ship be released to all newsrooms simultaneously. Lindsey Gambin, a former Labour TV reporter, said it would be better to “give the story” to a newsroom. PBS was their first choice.
PBS was given a funding increase of €30 million from your taxes over five years, but that was just a coincidence. It’s also a coincidence that a private company — Electrogas — ran to the government anytime it received media questions, and its replies were scripted by the OPM.
From impartial public broadcaster to censor and propagandist in just a few short years.
It’s a far cry from the noble role enshrined in the Constitution, where Article 119 stipulates that the broadcaster must adhere to both “the principle of impartiality in respect of matters of political or industrial controversy” and “the principle of due apportionment of time and facilities between different political parties.”
Bonnici is also inheriting a public broadcaster whose finances are an absolute disaster thanks to the usual corrupt splurging of public money on friends of friends.
His Cabinet predecessor in the role, alleged bank robbery collaborator demoted to Minister Within the Office of The Prime Minister Carmelo Abela, claimed PBS made a €1 million profit in 2020. Unfortunately, Abela was deliberately ignoring a massive €3.8 million imbalance between liabilities and assets which makes PBS effectively insolvent.
It takes colossal mismanagement to end up in such a hole considering that government subsidies of PBS were €5.5 million in 2020, an increase of €1.4 million over the public funds it received in 2019.
Rather than use the money to fix the public broadcaster’s dire financial situation, they diverted it to Labour Party insiders by way of loss-making television programmes produced and presented by partisan apologists and former ONE TV producers, and by staff recruitment without any form of transparency.
Saviour Balzan has done well from the decline. Besides his prime-time show Xtra, he’s the executive producer of programmes that include Etimologija, Mill-Kamra, Gourmet Challenge and Propjeta Malta, which he runs using his own Malta Today staff and services, paid through public funds diverted from PBS.
Management is firmly partisan, too.
Its editor, Charles Dalli, worked at ONE Productions Ltd for seven years as Head of Engineering and Technical Services. I don’t know how much ‘editing’ that job involved, but I’m guessing ‘none’. Dalli took over his PBS role from former ONE TV reporter Norma Saliba.
Labour’s incredibly longwinded pre-election manifesto included promises that the Broadcasting Authority decision board would “include people not involved in politics”. Some interpreted this as a sign things might change in the post-Muscat era.
Handing the public broadcaster to rights-trampling Owen Bonnici should put an end to false hope. As far as Robert Abela is concerned, he’s the perfect man for the job.