New licence fee on billboards ‘attempt to muzzle opposition’, MP tells court

Acting as the PN’s lawyer, shadow justice minister Jason Azzopardi insisted that a revamped legal notice was an attempt to muzzle the opposition

Shadow justice minister Jason Azzopardi described a new licence fee levied on political billboards as an attempt by the government to muzzle the opposition.

Azzopardi has told a court that the government had effectively imposed a €30,000 tax on the Opposition which had "coincidentally" been introduced as the Panama Papers scandal rocked the Labour government.

Judge Jacqueline Padovani Grima heard submissions in the case filed by the Nationalist Party in a bid to overturn a legal notice banning political billboards this afternoon, after the PN had obtained a provisional warrant of prohibitory injunction halting the removal of its billboards about the Panama scandal this month.

The opposition is contesting the legality of a legal notice published on March 29, which prohibits the erection of political billboards up till three months before an election, requiring the payment of an annual licence fee of €1,500 per billboard to Transport Malta, in default.

The new rules published by the government regulating billboards did no revoke the old laws, PN lawyer Karol Aquilina argued. Aquilina pointed out that the new legal notice does not revoke the old one, as is the norm.

Planning Authority lawyer Robert Abela hit back at this point.  Abela said if the old law is still in place then the PN should have based its injunction on it and not the new law.

PN secretary general Rosette Thake told the court that the new legal notice will cost the PN a further €30,000 annually, in addition to the €40,000 it had spent on setting up these billboards in the first place.

Thake said the billboards were used to advertise political activities and get the Opposition's political message across in order to hold the government to account.

She pointed out that, unlike the Labour Party, the PN had taken down all its billboards after the 2013 general election. The PL had left theirs in place and had used them for commercial purposes these had sometimes been used by the government, Thake said. T

She pointed out that the PN had only put up its billboards last month in light of the Panama Papers scandal. The PN objected to the €30,000 annual cost to get its message across was an attempt by the government “to muzzle the opposition,” said Thake.

Abela said that discussions on the new legal notice had started in 2014, with the aim of “reining in the current anarchy”.

The previous system of imposing daily fines on illegal billboards was not working, said the lawyer. Often the punitive value of fines was outweighed by commercial gains. Also it was not always possible to establish who owned which billboard, the lawyer added.

Nine of the 20 billboards were illegal under both the new regulatory regime and the old one, the Planning Authority lawyer pointed out. “No court can sanction something illegal.”

Regulating billboards in no way stifles the Opposition's freedom of expression, Abela said.

Neither did the previous law allow for year-round political billboards, but only permitted the advertising of political other religious activities for up to 28 days.