People don’t have a right to know how much COVID-19 aid each media house received, with the Information and Data Protection Commissioner ruling that these details must remain secret unless the Prime Minister rules otherwise.
This forbidden information includes a breakdown of how much money in public funds political parties have earned for their TV stations, which could be as much as €90,000 a month each, more than all other media houses combined.
Last year, the government launched a direct aid scheme to media houses, over and above the wage supplement, whose revenue took a hit in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was originally meant to cover the months between March and June 2020, but was later extended.
Last July, Lovin Malta filed a Freedom of Information request to Malta Enterprise to acquire a full breakdown of how much aid each media house has received, but this was turned down.
Guidelines showed that TV media providers are entitled to up to €45,000 a month in direct state aid, while newspapers are entitled to €10,000, online-only news portals (like Lovin Malta) are entitled to €5,000 and radio stations are entitled to €3,500. Media houses that provide a news service on more than one portal or channel are entitled to €10,000, the same as newspapers.
Media houses were also told that the government would match their promised COVID-19 direct aid with an equal amount of advertising expenditure, effectively doubling their revenue from the state.
Only media houses which employ at least four full-time journalists are eligible for this aid, which means the only TV providers who can benefit from it are TVM, the state’s own broadcaster, and ONE and NET.
With direct aid and advertising combined, ONE and NET would be eligible to €90,000 a month in government revenue each.
Direct aid is capped at €200,000 per media house over three years, under the EU’s de minimis laws which allow governments to give companies small amounts of aid without it being classified as state aid. However, advertising expenditure doesn’t fall under the de minimis rules as it’s not technically state aid but rather a payment for a service.
There’s been absolutely no transparency about which media houses applied for the aid, how much money each media house has received so far, and the models being used to apportion the expenditure.
Malta Enterprise refused to provide a full breakdown of how much direct COVID-19 aid each media house has actually received, citing confidentiality clauses under the Malta Enterprise Act. Instead, it just passed on the aforementioned guidelines.
Lovin Malta appealed to Data Commissioner Ian Deguara and the institution asked Malta Enterprise for an explanation.
Malta Enterprise cited a clause within the Freedom of Information Act that says its provisions don’t apply to information whose disclosure is prohibited by other laws.
Meanwhile, the Malta Enterprise Act binds the agency to professional secrecy laws and forbids it from divulging any information about any applicant or any benefits granted to any applicant without their prior written consent or “as otherwise permitted by law”.
It also states that Malta Enterprise and all its staff must not divulge any information to a court, tribunal, board, committee of inquiry or authority unless the Prime Minister directs otherwise in writing.
Deguara ruled that Malta Enterprise’s reasoning was sound and said it has every right to keep the information on how much aid each media house received close to its chest.
“On the basis of the foregoing, the Commissioner hereby decides that the Freedom of Information Act does not apply to the requested document in relation to the complete breakdown of financial aid granted by the Public Authority [Malta Enterprise] to media uses in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, in so far as such document contains information the disclosure of which is prohibited by Article 21 of the Malta Enterprise Act,” he wrote in his conclusion.
“Consequently, the final decision taken by the Public Authority on the applicant’s request for information is justified.”
The lack of transparency over the COVID-19 aid package media houses was recently cited by Reporters Without Borders in its annual press freedom index, which ranked Malta 81st, the same position it was in last year.
“The situation was further compromised through the opaque and inequitable allocation of state funds to select independent media during the Covid-19 pandemic,” the international press group wrote.
In an apparent response to RSF last weekend, MaltaToday wrote in an editorial that the COVID-19 aid, while covering up to 5% to 15% of salary bills, isn’t hindering media houses from holding the government to account.
However, the Data Commissioner’s decision means there can be no accountability in terms of how much public money all media houses, particularly those owned by political parties, are receiving and whether the system is being abused.