Malta’s public broadcaster received €200,000 in direct COVID-19 aid in recent months, over and above the millions in direct taxpayer funding.
PBS executive chairperson Mark Sammut confirmed with Lovin Malta that the public broadcaster did indeed receive the aid, saying that it met the criteria in Malta Enterprise’s guidelines.
This is another injection of public funds into the state broadcaster. The government’s financial estimates show that PBS received €4.2 million in public funds in 2018 and 2019, rising to an estimated €5 million in 2020.
Last September, Broadcasting Minister Carmelo Abela announced that this annual injection of public funds will rise to €6 million for the next five years. This move will have to face state aid scrutiny since PBS also operates commercially, competing in the advertising sales market, while being propped up by the taxpayer.
Despite this state support, PBS is heavily in debt, likely to be in the region of €10 million, while it is exposed by another €10 million due to internal lawsuits.
After the COVID-19 pandemic hit Malta last year, Malta Enterprise announced a support scheme for media houses to compensate for their loss in advertising revenue.
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.
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, and the political parties’ propaganda stations ONE and NET.
Labour’s new online portal The Journal recently reported that the government has disbursed a total of €1.3 million to media houses through this scheme, based on the maximum aid according to the guidelines.
However, the government has refused to publish exactly how much aid has actually been granted, with the Data Commissioner upholding Malta Enterprise’s argument that it is legally bound to secrecy unless the Prime Minister dictates otherwise in writing.
Besides the direct aid, media houses were also told that the government would match this aid with an equal amount of advertising expenditure, effectively doubling their revenue from the state.
The 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.
Lovin Malta has asked Prime Minister Robert Abela whether he will direct Malta Enterprise to publish a breakdown of how much COVID-19 state aid each Maltese media house has received during the pandemic but our questions have been ignored.