Broadcasting conundrum

The Constitutional provisions on broadcasting must be updated to reflect the difference between the legal obligations of the state-owned public broadcasting stations and those of the privately owned stations

For the last 30 years or so, ever since broadcasting ceased to be a monopoly of the state and licences were issued for private radio and television stations, Malta has struggled to square a circle by having a Broadcasting Authority set up to regulate the state’s broadcaster trying to do the same in a completely different situation.

The concept that the stations owned by the two main political parties balance each other out is written in the Broadcasting law, but this could well be unconstitutional. Lovin Malta – a popular media platform – has in fact filed constitutional action aimed at annulling a Broadcasting Act provision that allows political party stations to bypass the principle of impartiality. Article 13 of the Broadcasting Act allowed the authority to consider the general output of programmes “together as a whole.” At the time, the government of the day had argued that party-owned transmissions would eventually balance each other out. Lovin Malta is arguing that saying that party-owned stations would balance each other out, presupposed lack of impartiality.

The problem, of course, is that the Constitutional provision was overtaken by events. The way it was worded did not envisage broadcasting pluralism; much less the idea of political parties owning broadcasting stations.

In a report on the issue published last Tuesday in The Times, Pierre Cassar – who in the past was the CEO of the Broadcasting Authority – referred to a recent decision in a case instituted by the PN in which the Appeals Court confirmed that impartiality required by the Constitution was “not limited to a situation where a monopoly is present (and) and applies in all broadcasting services in Malta, both public and private.” For me this is no ground-breaking decision. As the Constitution provisions on broadcasting stand, it cannot be otherwise.

Moreover the impartiality provision in the Constitution is much wider than the adherence of strict impartiality between the two main political parties. It actually refers to “matters of political or industrial controversy or relating to public policy”. According to Cassar this means that a radio station owned by the Church must be impartial on an issue such as abortion: it is obliged to have guests who are pro-choice giving their take on the issue. This is completely true. But this is no great shakes, and I cannot understand why and how Pierre Cassar thinks that the recent Constitutional Court decision has changed the situation. During the divorce referendum campaign, in fact, the Church-owned radio station (RTK) was very careful and avoided going all out against the introduction of divorce – not because the Maltese Church did not oppose divorce vehemently, but because of the rules governing broadcasting.

The problem is further complicated as today we have media platforms and so-called ‘podcasts’ on the internet that are not radio or television stations: Lovin Malta itself is one of them. Do we want the Constitution to impose impartiality on them too? God forbid.

Today the Broadcasting Authority is in the doldrums. It does not even bother to ensure that broadcasting is not in bad taste. It has just become a regulator that issues licences to radio and television stations. On its website it boasts that it monitors and regulates all radio and television broadcasts originating from the Maltese islands. The truth is that unless the Authority receives a formal complaint, whatever the stations broadcast is apparently irrelevant! This is a clear abdication from its duties as indicated in the Constitution.

The time has come for another upheaval in the regulation of Maltese broadcasting. This is apart from the fact that Malta needs a radical shake-up in the composition of the Broadcasting Authority which has been for donkey’s years, made up of a Chairman and four persons with two being ‘nominated’ by each of the two main parties. These are often erroneously referred to as party representatives. Constitutionally, they are not.

In the current muddled situation two things are clear: one is that PBS cannot be allowed to go on like this. Recently – or to be precise ever since the run-up to the elections held in March last year – its political impartiality has gone to the dogs and it has become yet another arm of the propaganda machinery of the party in government. This is not acceptable in principle and the Broadcasting Authority is obliged to stop the rot in what should be Malta’s national broadcaster.

Two: The Constitutional provisions on broadcasting must be updated to reflect the difference between the legal obligations of the state-owned public broadcasting stations and those of the privately owned stations.

Iran’s women

Iranian women have been raging in the streets of Teheran and other cities since the death in custody of Mahsa Amini last September. Amini was a 22-year-old woman who was arrested by the ‘morality police’ for failing to cover every last strand of her hair.

Such protests require courage, given the regime’s readiness to lock up and rape protesters. Yet they have lasted for months and have flared all across the country, involving every ethnic group and people from all walks of life.

According to a recent report written by Golnar Motevalli on Bloomberg, Teheran’s cafés are today buzzing with alfresco diners who have their hair out, resembling their counterparts in Istanbul, Dubai or Beirut, where head coverings are not mandatory. Across the city of about 10 million people, ‘uncovered’ women flash victory signs at each other in solidarity. At shopping malls in some areas it now seems more unusual to see a young woman wearing a hijab.

According to Motevalli, besides testing the legal boundaries, the quiet defiance of Iranian women is visibly transforming Teheran in a way that has become the most immediate legacy of the latest revolt against the regime.

The protesters are not demanding more welfare or the diluting of some oppressive regulation: they want an end to the regime. “Death to the dictator!” is an unambiguous slogan. And they are led by women, which gives them an unusual strength.

The regime enforces hijab-wearing with whippings. By just removing or burning their headscarves in public, these women send a message of defiance that spreads rapidly on social media, inspiring all who are annoyed at clerical rule.

When faced with protests, the regime usually calls on its supporters to stage counter-demonstrations.

This time, hardly any have shown up.