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Broadcasting: hard nut to crack

Malta’s medieval political landscape in broadcasting is getting even more blurred as new revelations over money-laundering claims are made and the local council and European Parliament elections in May next year approach.

As the radio and television stations of the two main political parties present their own version of the daily news, each excelling in turning every angle to their party’s favour, the national broadcaster keeps to its traditional role of serving, in the main, as the government’s mouthpiece. It may vehemently rebut the charge but hard evidence shows that the State radio and TV stations faithfully change their colour in accordance with the party in government.

All this makes a perfect recipe for the stifling division that is suffocating the political atmosphere in the country. In its report on last year’s general election, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe made recommendations that encompass all that local media experts and observers have been saying for years on end.

Briefly, the OSCE called on the government to review the way it chooses people running the Broadcasting Authority and the Public Broadcasting Service to “enhance independence”. This is what the organisation had to say: “To increase public trust and foster representation of wider political positions and societal interests, consideration could be given to revising the rules for the appointment of members of the broadcasting regulator and PBS management in a manner which enhances independence.”

As the situation stands, the two main parties still rule the roost; two members are chosen by the Prime Minister and two by the leader of the Opposition, with the chairman being named by the Prime Minister or the minister responsible for broadcasting.

Such a monopoly is unacceptable in a democratic society, more so when the country keeps boasting of the advances made in so many other areas of activity. Yet, in a matter that touches the core of the democratic process, it keeps back from carrying out the much-needed reform to ensure a regulator with a wider societal representation than it has at present.

Ten years ago, then prime minister Lawrence Gonzi had said he was prepared to discuss with Labour proposals to end the dominance of the political parties on the broadcasting watchdog and to include in its composition representatives of civil society. Unfortunately, nothing of the sort happened.

Today, there does not seem to be any appetite for change. The contrary is the case. The two main parties are happy that the absolute political bias of their respective station balances each other out, a retrograde stance that, strangely, is sanctioned by the broadcasting laws.

The situation at PBS is not getting any better either, with Labour doing exactly, if not worse, than the previous Nationalist administration, in ensuring it serves as a key tool in the promotion of its politics. Critics rightly point out PBS is failing in its constitutional obligation to impartiality by under-reporting, if at all, stories that cast the government and the Labour Party in a bad light. The national broadcaster increasingly appears to support Labour’s panem et circenses (bread and circus) philosophy.

It is distressing that the political parties have not yet seen to the urgency of seeing to a problem that has been causing so much damage to the fabric of society. They may even be scratching each other’s back.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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