MaltaToday: ‘Smart Island’ ads blocked after BA waves the red card
NEWS | Sunday, 20 January 2008

‘Smart Island’ ads blocked after BA waves the red card

Charlot Zahra

The Investments Ministry’s latest media campaign about Smart Island, the government’s ICT strategy, has landed in hot water after the Broadcasting Authority (BA), the constitutional watchdog which supervises broadcasting in Malta, has issued charges against the four terrestrial television stations which broadcast the adverts claiming that the adverts constituted political advertising.
Asked whether the BA had issued a circular prohibiting broadcasting stations from broadcasting Smart Malta adverts, BA chief executive Kevin Aquilina told MaltaToday: “It is the Chief Executive who has issued a charge against TVM, NET TV, One TV and Smash TV with regards to the said political adverts.
“As yet, the Authority has not heard the charges in question; nor has the Authority pronounced itself about such charges. The Authority is expected to hear these charges during next Tuesday’s meeting,” Aquilina told MaltaToday.
On its part, a spokesperson for the Ministry for Industry, Investments and IT revealed that in an unprecedented move, TVM (which falls under the MIIT portfolio) has invited the Ministry to attend next Tuesday’s hearing to state its case on the matter.
“I should underline that we are not in agreement with the BA Management’s objections to the adverts and we have accepted TVM’s invitation to attend the BA hearing and state our case.
“We are also informed that PBS has asked for the BA’s scheduled hearing to be brought forward and to be heard with urgency,” the spokesperson told MaltaToday.
Asked for the Ministry’s reaction to the BA’s decision to stop the Smart Island adverts, an exasperated MIIT spokesperson told MaltaToday: “We will make our views known to the BA at the hearing on this subject. I repeat, however, that it is our view and the view of our legal advisers that there is no breach of any legal provisions of impartiality in the adverts.
“We have made extra efforts to ensure that the adverts are beyond partisan politics and essentially portray the relevance of the information society within the context of the national strategy,” the spokesperson insisted.
Industry sources told MaltaToday that the television stations risk a fine of Lm400 per day if they continued broadcasting the Smart Island adverts after the BA chief executive issued his charges against them.
Aquilina was sure-footed about the outcome of the case: “In my opinion, and following past cases decided by the Authority, the Smart Island advert would probably be considered as a political advert by the Authority.
“Whether or no, one has to await the Authority’s decision on the matter after it would have heard both myself and the above-mentioned stations put their case to the Authority,” he told MaltaToday.
Asked to elaborate about the criteria used by the Authority to determine whether a government advert is a political advert or not, Aquilina said: “The criteria to determine whether an advert is political or not – irrespective of by whom it is produced – are any one of the following: whether it concerns public policy (as in the case of the Smart Island advert), whether it concerns a political controversy or whether it concerns an industrial policy.”
Questioned whether the Authority received a complaint from a third party about the Smart Island advertisements or was the complaint raised by the Authority’s monitoring department, Aquilina excluded the first possibility. “No, my office has not received a complaint from a third party. The advert was detected by the Monitoring Department and brought to my attention,” he told MaltaToday.
Quizzed as to whether the ban on political advertising was enforced only during an electoral campaign or is it enforced permanently, the BA chief executive said: “The ban on political advertising is enforced throughout the year for the Broadcasting Authority does not distinguish as to the date when such adverts should or should not be enforced.
“However, from time to time, the Authority organises various schemes to allow political adverts. At the time of writing, there is no such scheme in force,” he told MaltaToday.
The MITI spokesperson said that TVM and Smash TV informed the Ministry that the BA had intervened with them to stop the Smart Island adverts and that a hearing was pending to confirm or otherwise the BA’s decision.
“The two stations that communicated with us asked us what they should do. We told them that pending a final decision by the BA Board, they should respect the BA Management’s order to stop the transmissions,” he told MaltaToday.
Asked whether the BA gave any reasons to the Ministry for stopping this campaign and whether the adverts were classified as political adverts or not, the Ministry’s spokesperson told MaltaToday: “At no point did the BA communicate with this Ministry on this matter.
“As to whether the adverts were classified as ‘political’, you should perhaps ask that question to the BA. I should however say that One TV, that is not in the habit of broadcasting adverts that are ‘political’ in a way that would usually displease the owners of One TV, accepted without comment to carry The Smart Island advertising campaign.
“Indeed, before our request to them to stop airing the adverts following the BA’s intervention with other channels – ironically, not One TV – they (One) had already broadcast The Smart Island spot four times over a seven-day period.
“I should also add that we are reliably informed that prior to broadcasting our ads, One TV cleared the content of the adverts internally with the MLP,” the spokesperson claimed.
Asked to give a detailed breakdown of the Smart Island campaign, stating how many adverts were planned, their length or size, on which media they were going to be placed, the duration of the campaign and the total budget planned, the MITI spokesperson was unusually economic in his reply.
“We prefer to hold onto this information until the conclusion of the BA’s deliberations on the matter. It may be relevant however to know that the campaign had bookings with all local TV stations broadcasting in Malta,” he said tersely.
Three months ago, another campaign by MITI about the Government’s plans for the Grand Harbour until 2020 was also stopped by the BA after it was deemed as political advertising.
In a circular to all broadcasting stations issued on 12 October, Aquilina announced that the Authority had extended its interpretation of what constitutes political advertising: “As you might have noticed, during the last days the Authority was called upon to decide two charges concerning political advertisements.
“In terms of paragraph 1(f) of the Third Schedule of the Broadcasting Act it is prohibited to air political advertisements unless such adverts fall within a scheme of political broadcasts (e.g. party political scheme, EU Parliamentary Elections, general election scheme, referendum scheme, etc.).
“The Authority is interpreting the words ‘political nature’ not only in the strict sense of the word as in partisan politics but also in a wider sense to include public policy.
“Hence all stations are to ensure that no political advertising is broadcast unless permitted by the Authority,” he warned.
Asked whether the Ministry felt it should tone down the content of its adverts, a Ministry spokesperson told MaltaToday: “The Smart Island adverts promoted a strategy on which there is a broad national consensus and which involved a variety of organisations, including, for the record, the Malta Labour Party.
“If you consider the script of the adverts inappropriate, I urge you to reproduce in your report the scripts of the adverts and let your readers judge whether the adverts could be deemed objectionable by any objective reader.
“Failure on your end to this will merely confirm that yours is a rushed baseless conclusion,” the MIIT spokesperson said curtly.


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