Party TV stations are currently in the limelight, but the exact same legal arguments now being posed to end their broadcasting of political propaganda were made 10 years ago by none other than the President of Malta.
In 2011, President George Abela, the father of current Prime Minister Robert Abela, visited the Broadcasting Authority and gave a speech that warned that the law allowing the airing of political propaganda goes against the Constitution.
In Malta, the President is the Guardian of the Constitution, so his clear interpretation of it is significant.
This part of his speech from September 2011, translated from Maltese, is being reproduced below in full:
“An important development in broadcasting was when the state monopoly came to an end through the introduction of private TV and radio stations. Up until now, there were technical limitations on how many private TV licenses could be issued, but digital terrestrial technology will eliminate these limitations and perhaps open the door for other stations to open up.”
“Broadcasting has an essential place in a constitutional democracy to accurately and objectively inform people and help them form their opinions on political, economic, and social issues so as to strengthen democracy. In this context, the BA’s function is paramount to protect the fundamental rights of free thought, expression and pluralism, by guaranteeing fairness, transparency, impartiality and equality of opportunities when making one’s opinion heard.”
“The BA’s primary function, in terms of the Constitution and the Broadcasting Act, is that of a regulator that ensures balance and impartiality in controversial political and industrial issues and on matters of public policy, not by monitoring the content before it’s broadcast.”
“The fundamental aim is for democracy to be practised in a manner that allows Maltese citizens to make their different voices heard so that they can freely decide which side persuaded them most and take their decisions when it comes to voting. Citizens should have a right to hear all sides, both of the stronger currents and of the weaker ones and those that are just starting out. This means that all sides must have equal opportunities to get their message across, and ultimately the BA must ensure it safeguards the right of citizens to make informed decisions.”
“The BA is obliged to ensure fairness, impartiality, and balance in all broadcasting.”
“Article 119 of the Constitution obliges the Broadcasting Authority to ensure due balance and impartiality in matters of political and industrial controversy or relating to current public policy on all broadcasting stations, both public and private ones. However, there are those who say that Malta only had a single public broadcaster when the Constitution was born.”
“On the other hand, the Broadcasting Act of 1991 was created in a scenario when private broadcasting emerged on the scene, particularly that run by political parties. This Act distinguishes between the two types of broadcasting and places a higher onus on public broadcasting.”
“The Act contemplates balance in two different ways: in the case of public broadcasting, the BA is obliged to ensure it exercises balance and impartiality in and of itself.”
“However, in the case of private broadcasting, a proviso stipulates that balance should be assessed on the basis of the programs provided by the various broadcasting licensees and contractors as a whole, which means one station can counter-balance the other.”
“Here, the question arises as to whether this system truly guarantees balance in broadcasting as required by law. The tendency is that while the general public follows the public stations, the ones controlled by political parties are largely followed by those who support one party or the other. Therefore, they can absorb partisan and misbalanced opinions because they won’t follow the station owned by the other party.”
“Moreover, the question arises as to whether the Broadcasting Act, which is an ordinary law and which distinguishes between two types of broadcasting with a higher bonus on public broadcasting, is compatible with the wording and the spirit of the Constitution, which is a supreme law and which requires balance and impartiality without distinguishing between two types of broadcasting.”
“When considering all these issues, one must also consider that not all political currents have the means to own their private stations, and therefore not all opinions can be given the same opportunities to be heard. This doesn’t guarantee a constant level playing field for all sides, and it’s certainly not in the interest of citizens to not be informed at all times about all views, so they can make informed decisions.”
Lovin Malta is making these exact same arguments in a court case it filed, which warns that the article in the Broadcasting Act flagged by Abela goes against the Constitution.
The case is therefore asking the courts whether the broadcasting of political propaganda by party media stations goes against the Constitution, which says broadcasting must be impartial.
Both the Labour and Nationalist parties have pledged to defend their TV stations, although the PN has suggested it could be open to a discussion on the future of party media if the discussion also includes a radical reform of PBS.
ONE Productions executive chairman Jason Micallef today insisted his station isn’t breaking any law and pledged to fight the case.