EU law that could sever Castille’s control of PBS heads for vote

Castille’s historic control of the national broadcaster could be challenged by the prospective European Media Freedom Act

Castille’s historic control of the national broadcaster could be challenged by the prospective European Media Freedom Act as MEPs get ready to vote on the draft bill in October. 

For decades, Malta’s Public Broadcasting Services (PBS) and its channel Television Malta has been under the sway of the ruling administration – without exception treating its chairpersons, CEOs and heads of news as typical appointments of trust. 

Now Members of the European Parliament are expected to vote in a law that forces EU member states to ensure independent structures for public and national broadcasters. 

For a country like Malta, where PBS’s close control by central government has been a bone of contention for decades, the law could have wide ramifications. 

If made law, member states will have to ensure – either by law or actions – that public broadcasters have full autonomy and editorial independence from governmental, political, economic or private vested interest. 

PBS management structures would have to be appointed in a transparent, open and non-discriminatory procedure. An independent authority will also determine the financial needs appropriate for public service media providers. 

Historically controlled 

Little has changed inside Malta’s public broadcaster, where news agendas tend to be ‘controlled’ ultimately by the tone set by whoever is enthroned at Castille. 

In August 2005, shortly after a restructuring exercise to cut down on staffing levels at TVM, the appointment through a public call of the former Times journalist Vanessa Macdonald as manager news and current affairs was vetoed by the Nationalist administration. 

It was the first attempt at filling the editorial position by resorting to a public call. 

MacDonald then reportedly enjoyed the confidence of investments minister Austin Gatt, whose ministry had carried out the public broadcaster’s restructuring. In a comment to the press at the time, a spokesperson for Gatt had said that as a government organisation, “public scrutiny in selection processes in public sector entities should be first of all governed by stringent confidentiality measures.” 

However, months later, the government hand-picked PBS manager of programmes, Sylvana Cristina as news manager. The government said the choice was “recommended by the PBS board of directors” which itself was appointed by the investments ministry. 

From 2008 to 2013, another former Times journalist, Natalino Fenech, was appointed as head of news at TVM following Cristina’s resignation. At the time, Labour’s then spokesperson on public broadcasting, Helena Dalli – now a European Commissioner – was quick to shoot down Fenech’s appointment. “Is this a political appointment? How did this happen? Why did they not issue calls for applications?” Dalli said. “It is only a symptom of government’s state of panic to go for this kind of appointment on election eve. Everyone knows Fenech’s bias towards the PN; his editorial line is obvious.” 

Any lip-service Labour has ever paid to transparent selection processes came to an end upon election in 2013. Its first choice as head of news was the experienced Reno Bugeja, a redoubtable interviewer who still had to kick back against repeated criticism from the Nationalist opposition about pro-government bias. Bugeja left upon retirement in 2020, to be replaced by hand-picked Norma Saliba. 

Saliba’s departure 

Saliba resigned her post earlier this year following a fall-out with PBS executive chair Mark Sammut. She cited a “deceitful character assassination campaign” against her as reason for the decision. In a pointed Facebook post, Saliba insisted that she never took advantage of her position to “benefit or destroy” anyone. “Despite this, over the past few weeks I ended up being a victim of a deceitful character assassination campaign… silence was my reply but more effort is needed to protect journalists and show more respect to women in top posts.” 

Saliba had been on long leave for several weeks as things came to a head between her and Sammut. Other sources close to Cabinet had told MaltaToday that Saliba’s father, veteran sports reporter Mario Saliba, wrote a stern letter to all ministers complaining over the way his daughter was being treated by the company management. 

No editor at PBS 

Saliba’s editorial role had been cut down last year when Charles Dalli – the company’s chief operating officer – was appointed as registered editor instead of her. 

Sources within the national broadcaster says a new balance will have to be reached inside the TVM newsroom, given the unorthodox arrangement that sees someone outside the newsroom occupying the role of editor. 

This could take the shape of having both an experienced veteran granted an editorial, yet administrative position, together with a Castille loyalist as a political editor. 

TVM’s newsroom is staffed by numerous talented individuals who have amassed years of experience in broadcast journalism: Mario Xuereb, drafted in 2012 from the Nationalist organ NET TV, is manager news production and current affairs, and has excelled himself in historical documentaries; veteran broadcaster Ruth Amaira’s name is etched in TVM’s history; and Mario Micallef, another experienced TVM reporter, has years of experience. Other names might be interested in seeking promotion to head the newsroom: online editor Owen Galea has a 20-year history in journalism, and like him, seasoned reporter Maria Muscat hails from the One TV newsroom; other seasoned reporters are Fiorella Pace and Antonia Micallef, while recent hires Liam Carter and former Illum editor Albert Gauci Cunningham both hailed from the same masthead before joining PBS. 

Who will be appointed instead of Saliba remains a question mark and it remains to be seen whether the proposed new EU rules will have any bearing on the choice. 

Other provisions 

In their draft position on the European Media Freedom Act, adopted on Thursday by 24 votes in favour, three against and four abstentions, MEPs proposed to cap public advertising allocated to a single media provider, online platform or a search engine to 15% of the total advertising budget allocated by that authority in a given EU country. 

To assess media independence, MEPs want to oblige outlets to publish information on who owns them and on whoever benefits from it, directly or indirectly. They also want them to report on state advertising and state financial support, including when they receive public funds from non-EU countries. 

MEPs also want to oblige media service providers to report on any potential conflict of interest and on any attempts of interference in editorial decisions. 

MEPs want the European Board for Media Services (the Board) – a new EU body to be set up by the act – to be legally and functionally independent from the Commission and able to act on its own, not only at the Commission’s request. Finally, they want an independent “expert group”, representing the views of the media sector and including civil society, to feed into the work of the board. 

Ewropej Funded by the European Union

This article is part of a content series called Ewropej. This is a multi-newsroom initiative part-funded by the European Parliament to bring the work of the EP closer to the citizens of Malta and keep them informed about matters that affect their daily lives. This article reflects only the author’s view. The action was co-financed by the European Union in the frame of the European Parliament's grant programme in the field of communication. The European Parliament was not involved in its preparation and is, in no case, responsible for or bound by the information or opinions expressed in the context of this action. In accordance with applicable law, the authors, interviewed people, publishers or programme broadcasters are solely responsible. The European Parliament can also not be held liable for direct or indirect damage that may result from the implementation of the action.

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