The Media Experts Committee has said that there was “no explanation needed” for the conflict of interest between MediaToday co-owner Saviour Balzan’s concurrent roles as a committee member and a media consultant for the justice ministry responsible for implementing press freedom reforms.
The committee was established in the wake of the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry and was tasked with drafting recommendations for legislation to better protect journalists, but the committee’s recommendations had been largely ignored.
The justice ministry, at the end of the day, presented its own set of Bills that failed to incorporate the full set of recommendations and then attempted, unsuccessfully, to rush them through parliament.
When asked whether Balzan had informed the committee that he was occupying the two roles in 2022 and whether any conflict of interest was declared, Frank Mercieca, the committee’s government-appointed secretary, said the committee was “aware that Mr Balzan had commercial interests from the very beginning”, but that an explanation from him was not “needed or offered”.
Mercieca, a former Court Services Agency CEO, said the committee found “no reason to query his presence”, despite widespread criticism of the committee’s setup.
He said it was “public knowledge” that Balzan held the two roles, yet that knowledge was only made public when The Shift reported on 7 March that Balzan held the two concurrent and conflicting roles involving the same ministry.
Institute of Maltese Journalists (IĠM) President Matthew Xuereb declined to answer questions asking whether he was aware of Balzan’s concurrent roles and referred The Shift to the committee. Follow-up questions pointing out that The Shift was seeking his answers as IĠM President was not answered.
The Justice Ministry has resisted the very reforms the media experts committee advises on, failing to act on the recommendations of the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry on how to better protect the media in the wake of the journalist’s assassination.
The Council of Europe recently noted the Maltese government has “failed to implement in good faith” the recommendations of the inquiry.
International press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has criticised Balzan for comments about The Shift, which “attempt to discredit independent reporting”, saying they were “troubling given his role on the committee of experts”.
Nine international press freedom organisations have criticised the media experts committee for a “lack of transparent consultation”.
The European Commission’s Civil Liberties Committee has also criticised the media experts committee’s delays in presenting a report reviewing the government’s proposed press freedom laws in 2022.
Saviour Balzan is the co-owner of MediaToday, the publisher of the MaltaToday and Illum newspapers, in addition to owning other companies that benefit from government funds. Pelagicus Media Ltd was the company through which Balzan was contracted to offer media consulting services to the justice ministry.
The government has resisted making requests for information on public payments made to Balzan and his companies and launched 40 freedom of information cases against The Shift’s managing editor Caroline Muscat to prevent the information from being made public.
The Information and Data Protection Commissioner Ian Deguara and the Appeals Tribunal chaired by lawyer Anna Mallia had already ruled that such information should be made public. Yet the government insists on challenging the decisions by taking the cases to the Court of Appeal, forcing The Shift into coping with the financial and human resources required to defend its requests in the public interest.
Judge Lawrence Mintoff has ruled on two of those cases so far, finding The Shift’s requests were justified because government ministries and agencies should be transparent on the use of public funds.
Several international press freedom organisations have condemned the SLAPP lawsuits and have called for them to be dropped.
Saviour Balzan is not just an advisor to the government. He is more of a spin doctor.
And a receiver of many direct orders
Looks like the PL has more spin doctors on her hands than one might think. The PLers on the MT website certainly love it, the way he’s always coming up with his monthly poll surveys in which the PL is always leading and the PN always losing.
Reading this article, it’s as usual that there is never any sort of conflict of interests as long as everything goes in line with and for the PL. After all, Mr Balzan is an old Labourite himself, whether with party membership or not.
The PL only knows one sort of conflict of interest which is when things are going against them and their machinations as efforts like by The Shift are contravening the PL’s interests and interpretation of ‘the rule of law’.
A sham of a committee that notwithstanding it’s recommendations were shunned by government.
Democracy at it’s worst definition.
kif ma jistħix jilgħaq?
It’s a matter of hats, you see.
Or simply, just a textbook example of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds!