NEWS | Sunday, 18 November 2007

Gatt confirms Cristina’s muzzling

Karl Schembri

Austin Gatt, the minister responsible for Public Broadcasting Services, has confirmed that the PBS registered editor and news manager Sylvana Cristina is allowed to talk to the press only after she gets the go-ahead from “her superiors”.
Independent newspaper editors are stating this is yet another blow to the journalistic freedoms at the state broadcaster as a spokesman for Austin Gatt has confirmed Cristina is “in duty bound to inform her superiors of questions asked to her by the press”.
Insisting that Cristina was just “like all employees of all entities run by this ministry” – which is also responsible for Malta Shipyards, Kordin Grain Terminal and the Smart City contract – the spokesman said the PBS news manager has to report back to higher channels whenever she deals with the press.
Despite being legally liable for editorial content, Cristina found herself unable to publicly defend her decision allowing Labour a two-minute reply on Bondiplus to what she felt was a programme biased against the Opposition.
Last Sunday, she referred to “an imposed media blackout” when asked for her comment in the ongoing fracas between TVM’s editorial board – left without a head since John Camilleri’s protest resignation four months ago – and the station’s chairman, Joe Fenech Conti.
“It’s a direct order from the ministry,” she said. “I can’t speak to the press and anything I say has to go through the chief executive.”
She repeated her statement to The Times last Monday, and in a letter sent to the same newspaper yesterday Cristina confirmed again that “for a number of years now (since Gatt took over PBS in fact) it has been company policy that official communication by the company’s officers be done through written questions and answers subject to approval from the Ministry for Investments and Information Technology.”
PBS sources said Cristina was made to send the letter to The Times in line with the minister’s declared policy of vetting and editing any public statements she makes.
Gatt’s spokesman, Jesmond Saliba, said: “Ms Cristina is a part of a commercial organization which faces fierce competition in the local market and as such the Board and management of the organization are in duty bound to ensure that the Company’s communications are in adherence to the Company policy. Moreover, like all employees, including but in no way limited to Ms Cristina, of all entities owned and run by this Ministry, she is in duty bound to inform her superiors of questions asked to her by the press. The success of organizations lies within the extent of the teamwork present in the organization. We are sure Ms Cristina appreciates this.”
Saliba added that “not all interviewees are journalists and therefore liberty to answer your questions is not a matter of journalistic freedom”.
“If anything journalistic freedom is involved in your right to ask the questions not in your interviewees’ obligation to answer them,” he said when asked why she could not answer the press.
But Cristina is a journalist – she manages the newsroom and is meant to have the last say on editorial content together with the editorial board.
In fact, last Thursday, The Times carried an extremely indicting editorial lashing out at Chairman Joe Fenech Conti for silencing her, calling the commotion at Television House as an “ongoing tragedy of errors” raising fears “that the direction being taken can negatively affect the editorial independence of the national TV and radio stations”.
The same editorial gives a whole list of the directors’ interference muzzling the PBS editorial wing: “It reversed the decision of the editor and the editorial board that Bondiplus should neither discuss the controversy on the migration to Mater Dei Hospital nor Alfred Sant’s answer to the budget speech. The board of directors also decided to include in the schedule programmes that were refused by the registered editor and the editorial board. To add insult to injury, the registered editor is prohibited from speaking to the press.
“Even those who might disagree with the decisions of the editor would agree that the actions of the board of directors are an affront to legitimate editorial independence and competence. Perhaps this is happening because the PBS tradition has always been that the CEO doubled up as editor, so the culture of editorial independence has not taken root. It seems that the board of directors has not come to terms with the new reality as it has not come to terms with the existence of the editorial board.
Free as an editor
Yet the ministry still insists on speaking of “editorial freedoms” supposedly enjoyed by Cristina and the editorial board.
“The Minister responsible for public investments, including PBS, cannot be held responsible for the actions of organizations in his remit if, for whatever imaginary rights you allege they have, employees are free to conduct public policy by public expression,” Saliba said.
“Ms Cristina is endowed with editorial freedoms and journalistic independence. She runs the news department that broadcasts on all public television and radio stations. In her tenure she has never been asked by this Ministry to provide advance copy of what she broadcasts on those stations nor has she been held to account in any shape or form for anything she broadcast on any of her shows. Unlike you, nothing in her comments to you constitutes an allegation that current communication policies within the Ministry are in any shape or form a threat to her journalistic freedom.
“Ms Cristina is not silenced, she never has been and there is no intention for her ever to be silenced. Her editorial decisions on the broadcasts of news on all PBS stations are governed by policies drawn up by the company’s editorial board and policies and decisions of the Broadcasting Authority. Within those parameters she has full discretion that is not hampered in any way either by the company’s CEO, much less this Ministry.”

Stop the gag
Newspaper editors think otherwise as they lash out at the ministry’s impositions on their colleague.
“Obviously as editor I carry all the legal responsibility for whatever I say or publish, and my decisions should be final,” said The Times editor Ray Bugeja – himself a victim of The Malta Independent’s director’s back in 1998 when he was sacked after defying their orders not to carry stories on then prime minister Alfred Sant.
“The way I see it, as long as we’re talking about editorial matters, the editor has a right, an obligation I would say, to decide when to comment and what to say,” Bugeja added.
His colleague, Vanessa Macdonald – just appointed Business Editor of The Times and the victim of a brutal tug of war between Gatt and the office of the prime minister when she was earmarked for Cristina’s post two years ago, slammed the minister’s policy of muzzling all his appointees to ridiculous lengths.
“To me, it doesn’t make a difference whether it’s the chairman of a state-owned company or the editor of PBS; Gatt either trusts them or not,” Macdonald said. “A manager is supposed to know what information is sensitive and what’s in the company’s interests but under Gatt they are not trusted.”
Throughout her numerous interviews and reports, Macdonald has come across endless occasions when chairmen and people appointed by Gatt spoke of censorship.
“I had started this whole thing about their freedom to speak, and I have asked Gatt a thousand times about this policy and likewise written about it: The number of chairmen who told me that once they take their role they are treated as children is never ending.”
Matthew Vella, editor of MaltaToday Midweek, said: “As editor, I would feel offended and humiliated, having my comments vetted by anyone. I’m responsible for what I say and write, but the way things stand at PBS, Cristina would have to appear in court if anyone sues her for libel but she can’t defend herself publicly unless she’s given the go-ahead from the ministry. Might as well Gatt appoints himself as PBS registered editor.”
The editor of sister paper Illum was also critical of the ministry’s heavy-handed imposition on Cristina’s editorial freedoms, saying that PBS’s public broadcaster’s mission puts it on a class of its own.
“Treating Cristina as if she were the manager of a commercial company, forbidding her to speak to the press and muzzling her so vulgarly says volumes about Gatt’s idea of the public broadcasting mission,” said Kurt Sansone. “It seems like the Nationalists’ rallying cry for ‘Xandir Hieles’ has been turned 360 degrees and everyone is now crying for a free public broadcaster under the Nationalists.”


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