Unbiased PBS, made in Brussels

It is of no surprise to hear rumours in the Brussels ‘radio moquette’ that actors of the Maltese government are already looking for arguments to tone down the European Commission’s ambition in the Media Freedom Act

The news of our Prime Minister addressing the United Nations assembly is another case study of the state of Maltese media right now.

PBS focused on Abela as a statesman. TVM.com.mt regaled us with Lydia’s impeccable fashion taste. Not a mention of the whopping €140,000 bill to cover the all-inclusive one week stay for the 30 strong entourage on the publicly funded media. Not a mention that no media was invited. For that we have to rely on other sources.

As we celebrated Malta’s Independence this week, a fleeting question crossed my thoughts. How much have we gained as a nation, as a people, in the past half-century and how much have we lost in the last decade? How much are we losing through an unwitting haemorrhage of our freedoms, both as individual citizens and as a sovereign State?

In Malta, freedom of expression was first established as a fundamental human right, actionable and protected by the Courts, already in 1961 by the interim Blood Constitution, and subsequently reaffirmed in the Independence Constitution of 1964. Independence for us means above all the freedom to put our rulers to scrutiny, even those – especially – elected by ourselves.

Letting go of our freedoms equates to losing out on our independence and to be subjugated to that which is dictated by the powers that be; allowing ourselves to be deprived of access to free information and expression.

Almost five years ago one of our best journalists was killed to silence the truth. It is painful to see that five years later Malta did not move an inch on media freedom and independence.

Ironically, or tragically, Europe has moved three or four steps to protect journalists in the aftermath of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s killing, while Malta stays idle.

Last week the European Commission made a move which will now hopefully force the Labour government’s hand. A proposed Media Freedom Act was submitted, intended to protect and further media pluralism and independence in the EU, in particular by including systemic safeguards against political interference in editorial decisions.

Evidently, in the light of current threats to the fundamental tool of democracy as is freedom of expression and free access to information, European Institutions feel the need to act. Von der Leyen made the move where Orban and Abela fail to budge.

This European Media Freedom Act is a matter of general public concern. It is in the interest of each and everyone of us to see that journalism remains a strong pillar of democracy; that it is able to operate fearlessly without interference from the State or other parties in order to allow for the emergence of truth, with free access to information for all, whilst offering a free and informed choice to every entitled individual; as only a choice made in this light can guarantee a genuinely democratic government.

In fact, this proposed Media Freedom Act focuses on the independence and stable funding of public service media as well as transparency of media ownership as well as the allocation of state advertising.

Crucially for Malta, the Commission proposal provides black-on-white safeguards against state control of public media, political nominations on related bodies and funding.

Article 5 of the proposed Act specifically provides to safeguard the independent functioning of public service media providers. This will impose on our state broadcaster to provide “in an impartial manner a plurality of information and opinions”; it will require that the PBS method be modified to ensure equality and uniformity and not allow for opposition spokespersons to be reported indirectly whilst government speakers are privileged to speak directly into a microphone.

Moreover, “the head of management and the members of the governing board of public service media providers shall be appointed through a transparent, open and non-discriminatory and proportionate criteria laid down in advance by national law”; this means the that the Prime Minister will no longer be entitled to handpick his party faithfuls to manage PBS, nor will he be entitled to dismiss them at his discretion when he believes they do not tow the party line.

Article 5 of the proposal applied to Malta would mean that PBS’s head of news cannot be selected from Castille but through an open process based on competence. Equally, PBS’s board of Directors cannot be handpicked by Robert Abela or his successor but through an open call.

While the proposal gives room for hope. It is too early to be jubilant. The proposal now needs to be negotiated and supported by the Council of Ministers, where Malta is represented by Government, and the European Parliament.

Worth noting also is that the Commission Proposal being a Regulation, once adopted at EU level this will be directly applicable and enforceable in our courts, without the need for implementation.

This means that every citizen can ask our local courts to enforce it with and against Government if need be.

All the above considered it is of no surprise to hear rumours in the Brussels ‘radio moquette’ that actors of the Maltese government are already looking for arguments to tone down the European Commission’s ambition in the Media Freedom Act.

One argument floated around is that the Regulation is ultra vires, hence going beyond the scope of the Union’s remit. This argument would presumably question whether the Commission has the powers in the treaty needed to enact laws on media freedom. The Commission proposal in based on the Internal Market legal basis, arguing that harmonised Media rules are required to enable media companies to trade across borders. This latter aspect is arguably the weak underbelly of the proposed act.

I hope that the above technocratic argument is not allowed to gather ground in Brussels. Back to Malta, the Labour government should just give in to the wind of change coming from Europe on this one and realise that it is us Maltese citizens who really deserve a truly independent public broadcasting in the first place.