TVM was ordered to air a five-minute clip of Opposition leader Bernard Grech before the eight o’clock news this weekend as a “remedy” for the way Prime Minister Robert Abela criticised the PN when responding to a question by a NET journalist.
The PN filed a complaint to the Broadcasting Authority after TVM aired a live broadcast of Abela’s press conference on 4th March, in which he announced the closure of restaurants and new limitations on private gatherings to curb the spread of COVID-19.
This was a U-turn from Abela, who had said in January that he wants the economy to start recovering by March and for Malta to return to “business as usual” by May.
Many journalists at the press conference questioned Abela about his early promises, and one even asked whether Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci should resign.
When the microphone passed to NET journalist Maria Francalanza, she played the Prime Minister a clip of his promise that the economy will start recovering by March and asked him whether he’ll apologise.
However, Abela didn’t take her question at face value and said it was an attempt by the Nationalist Party, which owns NET, to “politicise the situation”.
“I’m so pleased to see the party you represent politicising this situation,” he said. “However, more than pleasing me, it actually disappoints me, because the one thing we shouldn’t do is politicise this situation.”
He also noted that Malta had started vaccinating people against coronavirus in December 2020, even though PN politicians had predicted the vaccination drive would only start in April 2021
“We don’t know how the situation will develop next week, no one does, but I do know that I have unwavering determination to bring Malta back on its feet as soon as possible. The more you try to make me lose heart, the more my determination will grow.”
PN secretary-general Francis Zammit Dimech asked the Broadcasting Authority for a “remedy” to Abela’s use of a major press conference to spout politically partisan comments.
Meanwhile TVM head of news Norma Saliba pointed out that the station can hardly cut the live broadcast if the Prime Minister says something that others might interpret as political.
When it was faced with a similar complaint last year, the BA, which is composed of representatives of PN and PL, responded by ordering TVM not to broadcast journalists’ questions at all, lest they trigger “politically partisan” answers.
However, this decision was heavily criticised by journalists as an act of censorship and the BA has since changed its tune and said scrutiny of the Prime Minister is essential for democracy to function.
“The BA believes that COVID-19 national measures should be announced by the Prime Minister,” it said in its decision. “In the sake of the national interest, TVM should also air the journalists’ questions, which should ideally be related to COVID-19 measures.”
“These questions scrutinise the Prime Minister, which is essential in a democracy. His comments which could have been interpreted as political were the result of journalists’ questions, which the Prime Minister has no control over. The BA doesn’t feel it should stop the questions, which were related to the measures.”
As a result, the BA’s remedy was to order TVM to give Grech five minutes of air time before the eight o’clock news to speak about the COVID-19 measures that were announced on 4th March.
TVM was also ordered to read out a message from the BA right before the Opposition leader’s comments, explaining the reasoning behind it.
What do you make of the Broadcasting Authority’s decision?