The recent establishment of the Association of Media Owners (AMO) in Malta has drawn several negative reactions as a number of unanswered questions remain, including the group’s objectives, membership criteria and potential political influence.
The lobby group sees the traditional print media join forces with political party media to “protect and promote the interests of its members,” according to reports published on 29 December, usually a week when political parties bury bad news.
It was set up in private discussions that excluded alternative news outlets and independent journalists, raising concerns of further distortion in the media sector already dominated by political party ownership.
The six companies involved are Allied Newspapers, owned by the Strickland Foundation, Media.Link is owned by the Nationalist Party; Media Today is owned by Saviour Balzan and Roger Degiorgio; Sound Vision is owned by the Labour Party; Standard Publications publishes The Malta Independent; and the General Workers’ Union, which owns Union Print.
The association of independent media with political party media has raised international concern, considering the media landscape in the country. Reporters Without Borders emphasised that independence from any political influence is a prerequisite of “quality journalism”.
“We don’t understand why major media would join forces with the party outlets and exclude the independent media,” Reporters Without Borders added in its statement.
“We urge all media outlets in Malta to be part of the solution and not continue to fuel the divisions, which only weaken the country’s press freedom climate and leave individual journalists at risk.”
A report on the Maltese media landscape by the European University Institute in 2023 highlighted the lack of publicly available information, while the country’s political independence of the media and market plurality was considered ‘high risk’.
Last year, Malta registered its lowest-ever score on the Reporters Without Borders press index.
Reporters Without Borders called on the Maltese government “to systematically consult decisions impacting media and press freedom with all relevant stakeholders, including the independent media which are not part of the new Media Owners Association.”
There is little clarity about the lobby group’s statute, the formation of its executive committee, and how members are selected, evaluated, and accepted.
Local journalists have already been vocal on social media about their disagreement with how this lobby was set up – the lack of transparency and the exclusion of those doing independent journalist work that holds the government to account. In contrast, the independence of traditional media has increasingly come into question.
The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation drew attention to the fact that the alliance has created a situation where the governing party sits on both sides of the negotiating table.
As the lobby claims it will negotiate with the government on policies that may harm its members, it has created a situation where, through its media platform, the government can influence decisions before it has to deal with any demands.
“The urgent need is to protect independent journalism. This cannot be achieved if political media are put on the same footing as non-political media, still less if the governing party is on both sides of the negotiating table,” the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation told The Shift.
Also speaking to The Shift, veteran journalist, editor, and columnist Joe Borg criticised the exclusivity of the lobby group. “It is condemnable that this organisation is set up in such a way that the conditions for the number of journalists employed were included to leave out very important media houses such as The Shift and Lovin Malta. This is totally unacceptable and should be resisted”.
He added that while setting up an association of owners, in itself, is a positive thing because owners have rights and duties which they should responsibly protect, the situation results from the government’s failings.
“It is a big pity that the government has not taken on the challenge to set up a commission which would study and propose solutions for the whole media system. Perhaps it did so because it is in its interest not to have a media system strong on internal and external pluralism,” Borg said.
The Shift’s founder and Managing Editor, Caroline Muscat, said: “The context in which we work already puts us in a situation where we don’t have a level playing field – a situation in which everyone has a fair and equal chance of succeeding. We have to compete with political parties’ advantage while we struggle to survive. They owe millions in taxes and NI contributions while we have to follow company rules or get fined. The traditional media, which operate on outdated business models and refuse to adapt to market requirements, are now asking the government to help them survive. And the context clearly suits the government.”
A Times of Malta editorial in September 2021, talking about sacred cows, stated: “It would appear that ONE and Media.Link, the media arms of the PL and PN respectively, consider themselves the sacred cows of the local business sector. Between them, these two companies owe more than €5 million in unpaid VAT. To this, one must add a still unquantified amount owed for employees’ income tax deducted at source and social security contributions.”
The editorial demands the elimination of political party media, which has now joined the lobby group.
“Malta’s political parties have an overbearing presence in the media, but their public service role has to be seriously questioned. Both stations preach to the converted. They only reinforce the tribal polarisation necessary to preserve the blind loyalty of the hardcore voters of the Labour and Nationalist parties. It is time that both parties consider disbanding their media companies and deliver their message more in line with modern political communication strategies.”
The Times of Malta has three managing directors accused of money laundering and fraud in collusion with the government, and the owner of Media Today already earns millions from the government through consultancies and advertising.
The government has spent tens of thousands of euro and launched some 80 lawyers against The Shift to stop the publication of information on how much taxpayer money is awarded to Saviour Balzan.
There are questions about whether Standard Publications, publishers of the Malta Independent, even meets the criteria set to join the association with just seven journalists and three media workers.
While forming a lobby group is not problematic, the government has a poor track record of negotiating with media organisations, particularly when distributing funds.
The last time the government announced its plans to allocate €500,000 to help print media cope with the rise in the cost of printing paper, it was merely a press release with a simple statement announcing the decision, devoid of details and with negotiations held behind closed doors.
Before that, the problems arising from government funding of the media were already evident when the government offered a direct aid scheme to media houses over and above the COVID-19 wage supplement.
An analysis of the eligibility criteria by Lovin Malta concluded that party-owned media benefitted the most, while independent media never disclosed the sums they received. The organisation has an ongoing court case against political party media.
The government has put forward draft bills to protect journalists and has promised a White Paper, which has yet to materialise. Other recently agreed-upon legislation that will impact all of Malta’s media is the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) provisions.
The EMFA includes provisions where state funding to media will have to be allocated openly through a non-discriminatory procedure based on public criteria to various media.
The State will also have to publish information each year on how much they spend on media advertising, who it was paid to, and how much was spent per media service provider.