The Executive Chairman of Malta’s Public Broadcasting Services (PBS) refuses to publish information on how some €6 million of Public Service Obligation (PSO) funds paid by taxpayers is spent on financing TV and radio programmes, citing ‘commercial sensitivity’.
Mark Sammut, appointed to the role by Prime Minister Robert Abela, first refused a request from The Shift and then the Information and Data Protection Commissioner.
Sammut then asked his lawyers to object to publicising the information, telling the commissioner that PBS is a commercial entity and the information is commercially sensitive.
Lawyer Mark Vassallo, a former TV producer and the state broadcaster’s board secretary, claimed that “these documents (requested by The Shift) are all related to commercial activities of the company and may create serious problems if certain details are revealed as contracts with producers are of a confidential nature.”
The Shift did not ask for contracts but a list of public funds allocated to each TV and radio show between 2017 and 2022. The Times of Malta made a similar request to PBS in 2019 under a different chairmanship, and the information was handed over.
PBS receives €6 million in public funds yearly as it is not commercially viable. However, according to the National Broadcasting Policy, such funds can only be used to create non-commercially viable programmes that are of a social, cultural or educational nature.
Yet PBS refuses to share information on how the funds are allocated, spent and justified.
In 2010, an inquiry by the Auditor General found that PBS had to be more realistic in estimating revenue and the cost of each programme to be funded by taxpayers.
Since then, PSO funds have more than tripled, transparency lowered, and no other audit has been made.
PBS chairman’s problem with transparency
This is the second time Sammut has mounted a legal battle against The Shift to prevent the publication of information in the public interest.
Recently, he lost a case whereby he refused to publish his contract as chairman with the broadcaster. Using the same argument that PBS is a commercial company, both the Data Protection Commissioner and a tribunal ruled against him, arguing PBS was obliged to be transparent.
Tribunal Chair Anna Mallia scolded PBS, saying it is funded by the public and the information is in the public interest.
Forced to provide the requested information, The Shift discovered that apart from being paid over €100,000 for his job, Sammut also received another €26,000 a year for chairing the PBS board.
It was revealed that he rarely convened board meetings, with most of the decisions at the broadcaster taken by him without board consultation.
Before his appointment, PBS had a chairman and a CEO, and while Sammut has no experience in broadcasting, he took over both positions with two separate paychecks.