Call for harder approach to public broadcasting independence, state advertising in new EU law

The Maltese government is to face an upheaval when it comes to the appointment of PBS’ top brass and weening itself off state advertising, which will need to be published once the European Media Freedom Act comes into force


The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has warned that “mere recommendations and a soft-law approach will not be enough to ensure that the media in Europe remain free and independent from political, commercial and other types of interference” in its published opinion on the draft European Media Freedom Act.

The proposed law introduces several policies aimed at safeguarding public service media. Once the Act is approved, possibly in the first half of next year during the Swedish Presidency of the EU Council, Malta’s state broadcaster PBS will need to revamp the appointment process of its top brass – top executives including heads of management and members of governing boards – to ensure they are appointed through transparent, non-discriminatory and objective procedures.

This, and other measures the new Act contemplates, are expected to present a paradigm shift for PBS and the government’s control of the state broadcaster.

The EESC’s published opinion makes it clear that “public media only make sense if they are impartial and entirely independent of political influence, otherwise public financing can lead to all sorts of abuses and government manipulation. Any media financing project should be based on very transparent rules and guarantees of political independence for journalists.”

As matters stand, however, transparency does not appear to be the name of the game at PBS.

In June this year, PBS defied an order from the Information and Data Protection Commissioner to publish details, including names and payments, of the editorial board, as well as the contract of Executive Chairman Mark Sammut following freedom of information requests filed by The Shift.

PBS also refused to give information on the contract and remuneration given to Mark Vassallo, a lawyer who was politically appointed as board secretary of the public broadcaster.

“We are observing more and more political and economic influence in several EU countries, both in public and in private media with close links to power, which is incompatible with the role of media as the Fourth Estate,” said the opinion’s co-rapporteur Tomasz Andrzej Wróblewski.

“Neither governments nor private interests must control the media landscape,” said rapporteur Christian Moos.

“Public media that is not fully independent becomes a propaganda instrument. Media moguls with information monopolies pave the way for anti-democratic forces. The European Media Freedom Act is therefore an important and very timely initiative,” the opinion states.

‘Make free, independent media a Rule of Law triggering mechanism’

“Free and independent media must be binding criteria for the Rule of Law Report and for triggering the mechanism in Member States where governments violate media freedoms and independence,” Moos stressed, underscoring the EESC’s opinion that “mere recommendations are not enough to guarantee media freedom and diversity in the Member States.”

The EESC warned that with external influences attempting to manipulate public debates in Europe on the rise, in particular in the context of recent geopolitical upheavals, there is an even more urgent to strengthen media freedom and pluralism.

“Media freedom is in danger,” the EESC warned. “Authoritarianism has been on the rise, also in Europe. The Fourth Estate is a firewall against this illiberal onslaught. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to strengthen media freedom.”

In its published opinion, the EESC placed particular focus on the independence and impartiality of public media, pointing to the need for adequate and stable financial resources as the means to achieve this. It also lent its full support to proposals to strengthen and defend the editorial independence of both journalists and publishers.

Information on state advertising to be publicly accessible

When it comes to state advertising – by the government, ministries and agencies – such as the inundation of Budget 2023 propaganda the nation was recently treated to, there will be new transparency requirements, but whether they would apply to Malta or not is still being debated.

The draft Act describes state advertising as “promotional or self-promotional activities undertaken by, for or on behalf of a wide range of public authorities or entities, including governments, regulatory authorities or bodies as well as state-owned enterprises or other state-controlled entities”.

The problem as far as Malta is concerned is that the law as it currently stands in its draft form is only applicable to territorial entities of more than one million inhabitants.

This would obviously exclude the Maltese government given Malta’s population of just over 500,000, but in its first review of the Act earlier this month, it was reported that at EU Council level “several” countries supported the removal or lowering of this threshold to increase transparency. It is not known if the Maltese government was one of those in favour.

State advertising, the draft law acknowledges, is an important source of revenue for many media service providers, but it “may make media service providers vulnerable to undue state influence to the detriment of the freedom to provide services and fundamental rights”.

The Shift is the only newsroom in the country that does not accept advertising from the government or political parties.

Part of the reason is that, as the draft law identifies, “State advertising may make media service providers vulnerable to undue state influence to the detriment of the freedom to provide services and fundamental rights.”

The legal text adds, “Opaque and biased allocation of state advertising is therefore a powerful tool to exert influence or ‘capture’ media service providers” and that “access to it must be granted in a non-discriminatory way to any media service provider from any Member State which can adequately reach some or all of the relevant members of the public, in order to ensure equal opportunities in the internal market.”

As the rules on how governments spend their advertising budgets state to state, the draft law stipulates “in order to avoid the risk of covert subsidies and of undue political influence on the media”, common requirements on transparency, objectivity, proportionality and non-discrimination in the allocation of state advertising need to be established.

This also goes for the allocation of “state resources to media service providers for the purpose of purchasing goods or services from them other than state advertising”.

Along these lines, the draft law envisages requiring governments to “publish information on the beneficiaries of state advertising expenditure and the amounts spent”.

Once the EU law comes into force, the Maltese government’s SLAPP action of no less than 40 cases against The Shift to deny freedom of information requests on its media spending will presumably be rendered redundant.

The government is going to extraordinary lengths to withhold information on how public funds are being used to fund the operations of the MediaToday publishing house and the private businesses of its owner Saviour Balzan – particularly when it comes to PBS’ expenditure in that direction, advertising and the public relations consultancies that have been performed for different ministries by Balzan.

The draft law also stipulates, “It is important that Member States make the necessary information related to state advertising publicly accessible in an electronic format that is easy to view, access and download, in compliance with Union and national rules on commercial confidentiality.”


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1 month ago

It will NEVER Happen.
The devolution of power directive has been so much diluted by the Maltese government , that it is totally a farce.
Read the original directive and read what parts of has been adopted into the Maltese Directive.
The original practically removes all powers of the Ministers on their boards.
This besides the Proportionality Act Directive which has been ignored completely.

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