27 September 2015 / By Petra Caruana Dingli
Transport Minister Joe Mizzi plummeted to new depths last week, like some deep-water diver trying to break the record for new limits. He held an official press conference and decided to answer questions put to him by everyone except the journalist from the media outlet owned by the Opposition party.
Mizzi explained, in a sarcastic tone, that he was just trying to help him avoid making mistakes as Net TV is incapable of getting things right. The minister said he would only answer his questions in writing, a day or two later – even though the cameras were rolling and everything was being recorded anyway.
Now, we all know that political party newsrooms in Malta exist both to tell the news and to promote their party. Their bias is blatant. In that sense, there is not much to choose between them. The Broadcasting Authority simply takes the line that they cancel each other out and does not even bother to think about whether they are objective or not.
Mizzi’s stand touched a sore point. Malta is the only EU member state where political parties directly own television stations. How did we end up in this abnormal position, you might well ask.
In the 1980s Xandir Malta was the only broadcaster licensed to operate in Malta. State interference and control was the order of the day. The Opposition at the time had even set up a radio station in Sicily, to be able to broadcast a different version of the news to Maltese listeners.
Media pluralism was finally introduced with the Broadcasting Act in 1991. The first private television station was set up by the Labour Party, and the Nationalist Party followed soon afterwards. The public broadcaster, PBS, has still not completely shaken off its history of political interference, and its chairman and directors are appointed by the minister of the day.
Pluralism in the news is essential for a strong democracy, yet our market is not big enough for other commercial stations to run their own fully-fledged newsrooms. Political parties hold fund-raisers and have different sources of funding to ordinary companies. They also have different motives.
The biased news of political party stations is unhealthy, yet simply closing them down and returning to a single newsroom in the country would be disastrous. Until some other solution is found, we seem to be stuck with the current warped scenario.
Mizzi’s stonewalling of Net TV is therefore not to be taken lightly. It was also alleged that somebody switched off the Net news camera, without the permission of the cameraman.
This was an official government news conference, not a political party activity or a private event. I can understand that Mizzi is feeling the heat, but the journalist’s questions on the bus service seemed legitimate enough and he should have answered them.
The reform of the public transport system was one of the winning tickets of the Labour Party in its last election campaign. Mizzi can hardly expect to be let off the hook now, after all those declarations that the service would be improved.
He is still ignoring demands for public scrutiny of the agreement that he signed with the new bus company. Shamefacedly, he said it would be used unfairly by the Opposition. Well, I guess it takes one to know one. The political mileage he gained from Arriva-bashing is clear. Just imagine the questions of One TV on a bus strike in 2012, but Mizzi would not have lectured them about credibility then.
Television is a powerful medium and is a major source of news. Controlling or denying information to television stations is an important issue in principle, as it has a major impact on the attitudes of voters. The government purposely blocking any television station from asking questions has potentially serious implications on democracy.
The government has some explaining to do. This subject is home territory for Cabinet ministers and their entourage. The Prime Minister himself was a journalist at One TV, the Labour Party’s media outlet. Several people now on the State payroll were directly transferred to ministerial secretariats from One following the last election.
With a Cabinet minister publicly refusing to acknowledge Net TV at a government event, is the government taking the official line that the political party media are not credible and can be ignored? Surely, if they are going to block one of these stations, then this should apply to the other as well.
Following this incident, the minister responsible for Broadcasting, Owen Bonnici, should pick up the baton and review the way political party stations are functioning. Just as he found time for amending the civil code on pornography and the vilification of religion, which are hardly urgent matters, perhaps he could make time for this. Television stations affect and influence people on a daily basis.
Where are the advocates of free speech and democracy now? You may well not like Net TV, but a member of the government cannot just pick and choose the media to his liking, and is obliged to answer legitimate questions. There is more at stake here than tribal politics.