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MEPs push for law to make public broadcasters fully autonomous of governments

A committee of MEPs has approved a draft bill that will go to the vote in the European Parliament, to force EU member states to ensure independent structures for public and national broadcasters.

The law could have wide ramifications for Malta’s national broadcaster, whose close control by central government has been a bone of contention for decades since the liberalisation of the broadcast media.

Under the compromise text that MEPs will now vote on, member states will have to ensure – either by law or actions – that public broadcasters have full autonomy and editorial independence from governmental, political, economic or private vested interest.

Member states will be told to ensure the principles of “independence, accountability, effectiveness, transparency and openness” are respected in public broadcaster’s management structures by appointing them in a transparent, open and non-discriminatory procedure.

Directors’ terms will also be established in national law and be sufficient to ensure effective independence of the public media service provider.

Member States will also have to ensure that public service media providers have “adequate, sustainable and predictable financial resources on a multiannual basis for the fulfilment of their public service remit.”

An independent authority will determine the financial needs appropriate for public service media providers.

The adopted text for the European Media Freedom Act needs to be confirmed by the full Parliament, with a vote scheduled during the 2-5 October plenary, before MEPs can commence discussions with the Council on the final shape of the law.

“The European Media Freedom Act aims to establish greater diversity, freedom, and editorial independence for European media outlets,” said German MEP and rapporteur Sabine Verheyen (EPP). “Media freedom is seriously under threat in several EU countries – this is why the new law needs to pack a punch, not just pay lip service. We strengthened the Commission’s proposal to significantly safeguard media independence and protect journalists while at the same time not weakening our unique cultural differences.”

The Nationalist candidate for Europe Peter Agius, who referenced the law in recent months, said the law could be a step in depoliticising Malta’s PBS. “MEPs are making it clear that no head of news, editor or directors at PBS should be appointed by the government based on political criteria, but there must be an objective and transparent selection process open to all.”

Agius said the compromise text on the all-important Article 5 was actually proposed by the European S&D. “What the socialists want is actually out of synch with what the Labour government does in Malta, where PBS is a puppet of Castille.”

The Nationalist Party regularly files protests to the Broadcasting Authority over impartiality complaints on the PBS news bulletin.

Other provisions

In their draft position on the European Media Freedom Act, adopted on Thursday by 24 votes in favour, 3 against and 4 abstentions, MEPs proposed to cap public advertising allocated to a single media provider, online platform or a search engine to 15% of the total advertising budget allocated by that authority in a given EU country.

To assess media independence, MEPs want to oblige outlets to publish information on who owns them and on whoever benefits from it, directly or indirectly. They also want them to report on state advertising and state financial support, including when they receive public funds from non-EU countries.

MEPs also want to oblige media service providers to report on any potential conflict of interest and on any attempts of interference in editorial decisions.

MEPs want the European Board for Media Services (the Board) – a new EU body to be set up by the act – to be legally and functionally independent from the Commission and able to act on its own, not only at the Commission’s request. Finally, they want an independent “expert group”, representing the views of the media sector and including civil society, to feed into the work of the Board.