Joe Cannataci and Aitana Radu
Malta is the smallest country in the European Union (315 km²) with a population of 542,051 inhabitants (2022). It is also the most densely populated EU member state and the one with the highest growth in population, mainly because of immigration. Malta’s foreign-born population, is one of European Union’s highest in terms of percentage, with more than one in five residents being a foreigner. This has, in the last years, amplified the need for more cultural and socio-economic integration.
Moreover, there is a strong duality element in Maltese society and culture, which directly shapes the country’s media landscape. Firstly, there is Malta’s long, bipartisan tradition, where power alternates between the Labour Party (Partit Laburista) and the Nationalist Party (Partit Nazzjonalista), with smaller parties largely absent from representative bodies. Partisan divisions are very strong, with support for the two parties rooted in post-war class divisions.
Secondly, there is Malta’s bilingualism, where the addition of English, to Maltese, as an official language is a remnant of the country’s British colonial past. In very general terms, Maltese is employed to communicate orally, especially in informal contexts, while English tends to be used more in writing. However, the use of the two languages can differ significantly across different sectors, for example English is favoured in tertiary education, while Maltese is much more prevalent in Parliament, the Law Courts, the religious sphere and the broadcasted media. The choice of language is undoubtedly a differentiating social factor, with English being often associated with individuals pertaining to higher socio-economic sector or with a higher level of education (Caruana, 2011).
Last, but not least, Maltese culture is still predominantly Catholic. However, the signs of a gradual secularization have been manifesting themselves over the last few decades, especially among the younger population.
Malta has a very rich media landscape, considering its small size. This has developed largely since freedom of the press was established at law in Malta during British rule in 1839. Ever since, print media of all forms has flourished, to the extent that even during the Italian Risorgimento, for example in 1848, Italian exiles living in Malta would set up periodicals of all sorts in order to communicate their message in Italy as well as in Malta. The number of printing presses on the Island multiplied rapidly and some were quickly associated with the political parties that started taking shape between the 1880s and 1930. During that period and until independence in 1964, the story of the press is very closely related to the dynamics of power politics in a fortress colony with the power players consisting of the Catholic Church, the Colonial Government represented by the Governor and the political parties. From the very beginning, reaching one’s readers depended on financial means and this in turn meant that the daily, weekly or monthly print periodicals quickly turned to a business model which required advertising although the price of the periodical was most often a ha’penny or counted in pence. The allegiances of the print media to the multiple parties existing on the island could quite often be discerned. It is one of the ironies of history that one of Malta’s largest and most influential independent media houses in 2023 was also established by the Leader of the now-defunct Constitutional Party. Its independence developed organically although Labour Party supporters would recently always claim an anti-Labour bias in the Times of Malta newspapers published by Allied Newspapers Ltd., apparently forgetting that a century ago the Malta Labour Party was actually allied with the Constitutional Party.
Print media depended on literacy amongst the population though it was common for groups of people to request the more literate amongst them to read items of interest from newspapers, other periodicals and pamphlets. The large number of printing presses made pamphleteering a useful outlet for politically-inclined individuals who thus could avoid the costs and effort required to run a regularly published periodical. The growth of the print media was thus organic and in direct proportion to the growing literacy rate in Malta with the introduction of government financed public schools first at primary and then at secondary level after the educational reforms of the 1880s. The Colonial Government recognised the need to also reach the less literate parts of the population which were not being reached by the periodicals being printed in Malta in the English, Maltese and Italian languages. It therefore facilitated the creation in 1935 of a cable radio service operated by the British Rediffusion Company. Broadcasting locally-produced content in both Maltese and English, as well as relaying BBC programmes, Rediffusion penetrated most homes in urban Malta. Its British ownership and closeness to the Colonial Government marked it out as being Anglophile and some of its facilities were targeted by political rioting in 1958, events that would then impact the regulation of media in Malta. The importance of rediffusion and broadcasting, highlighted by the arrival of local television in Malta in 1962 was recognised to the extent that special clauses on Broadcasting and a Broadcasting Authority were provided for by Malta’s Independence Constitution of 1964. This was supposed to ensure that whoever owned a television or radio station, there would be fair access to all parties to these media.
Following independence, the countries political scene became increasingly polarised with the decline of smaller parties as well as a gradual but steady decrease in the influence of the Catholic Church. This led to the decline in readership of print media owned by the Catholic Church and the disappearance of the Church-owned daily newspaper Il-Hajja. By 1987, with both of the two main parties (PN and MLP) running their own daily and Sunday Newspapers in Maltese, with occasional forays into the English-speaking press too, the main battles were over who would control the state-owned TV and radio stations. This situation changed drastically with the liberalisation of the media in 1990 when a plethora of new radio and TV stations came onto the scene. Most of these were privately owned but PN and MLP also took the opportunity to launch their own radio and TV stations.
This cultural and political polarization still plays a key role in understanding Malta’s current media landscape. For example, depending on the type of media outlet, the language employed may vary significantly. In the case of printed media, out of 15 registered media outlets, 7 are in Maltese and 8 in English, indicating an almost even division. However, all 6 registered television stations use mainly or solely Maltese, which is the same situation as in the case of radio stations. The electronic media landscape is much more diverse, with 2 outlets employing both languages and a slightly higher number of English outlets by comparison to the Maltese ones. The move towards English in the electronic media landscape seems to be linked both to an increase in the number of English-language media consumers, as a result of the recent migration waves, but also due to a general preference towards English by the younger generation.
When it comes to the structure of the media ownership and control in the country, there are several distinctive elements, embedded in Malta’s socio-political evolution. Firstly, a significant number of outlets are politically and/or ideologically controlled. Seven out of the 15 registered printed media outlets either belong directly to political parties or affiliated professional associations, such as labour unions (In Nazzjon, L-Orizzont, Kullħadd, Il-Mument, It-Torċa and Illum) or to the Catholic Church (Il-Leħen). In the case of broadcast media, each party has its own channel (television and radio), namely the Labour Party controls One Radio and One TV, while the Nationalist Party has Net Radio and Net TV. The Catholic Church does not own a tv station, but it does own a radio station (103 Malta’s Heart) and an electronic media outlet (Newsbook). All party-controlled media employ Maltese as a primary language of communication, thus showing that politicians are aware of the efficacy of Maltese in reaching out to the largest possible number of people, while the electronic media outlet of the Catholic Church employs both English and Maltese. The market share of these outlets is quite considerable, albeit it varies in accordance with the support levels garnered among the general Maltese population by the entities (political parties and Church) using them as a platform.
Secondly, most media outlets have a director, a manager and/or board members have Maltese citizenship, while most companies (including secondary and tertiary owners) are registered in Malta. Thirdly, a large segment of the independent media is privately-owned, and provides mainly content in content. Among these, the largest media outlets (combining print with online platforms), which are also one of the largest overall in terms of market share are legacy-outlets, such as Times of Malta and The Malta Independent. The public broadcaster (TVM) still plays an important role in the Maltese media landscape (through its television and radio channels and online platform), however its independence has been questioned. The intrinsic design of its governance structure makes it vulnerable to ideological interventions in its editorial policies from the part of the ruling party.
One of the key changes to the media landscape in Malta has undoubtedly been the advent of publishing via the internet which freed journalists and opinion writers from the need to be associated with traditional print media. This has led to a number of individual bloggers as well as fledgling private news organisations which have achieved a significant following amongst the Maltese English-speaking public. Of note in the growth of these new forms of digital media were the internationally known – and since assassinated – Daphne Caruana Galizia (Running Commentary), as well as the blogs of Manuel Delia (Truth be told) and Shift News. The financial advantages of not having to be burdened by the costs of a printing press, print runs and distribution has meant that independent-minded journalists and opinion writers could create or join new outlets which could be accessed free-of-charge by the reading public and published (almost) free-of-charge by the journalist or writer concerned. While this has led to electronic postings, often on a daily basis, reaching thousands or tens of thousands of readers, it is a development which is not necessarily always caught in formal reporting structures since, often quite deliberately, the journalists concerned would not register themselves formally with the authorities, as a way of insisting on their right to freedom of expression and ability to practise their profession without requiring a license or permit from the government to do so. This means that while everybody on the island would know who owns the website or blog, and the people behind it, the precise fiscal ownership structures are not transparent or easy to find. For example, Shift News declares it is a community-funded online news portal, which publishes its financial information directly on its website in an attempt to increase transparency.
Transparency levels in terms of ownership by comparison to funding are markedly different in Malta. While official information may not always available on media ownership, due to the fact there are no specific legal obligations whereby media companies are required to publish their ownership structures on their website or in documents that are easily accessible to the public, the public is well aware of who owns, which media outlet in Malta. However, all companies in Malta are under the obligation to register with the Registrar of Companies (RoC) by submitting a memorandum of association which must, inter alia, include the name and residence of each of the shareholders. RoC is available online but the details that are accessible to the public for free are very limited and they can only be obtained after paying a fee (5 euros/report). The Broadcasting Authority is entitled to require and obtain any type of information it considers necessary from the license holders. However, the Authority does not publish this information on its website.
The situation is different when it comes to revenue sources. While the business registry should, in theory, include information on annual revenue of companies, not all legal entities registered abide by this rule. The outlets providing the least information are party-owned media outlets, whose annual revenues have not been declared now for several years, allegedly because of the levels of debt they incur. The absence of a unique template for reporting means that even in the case of the other companies, the completeness of the information provided is not always the same. Transparency levels are, however, at their lowest when it comes to government funding of media outlets, irrespective of whether they take the form of public subsidies or advertising revenue. There is no information on either the amount of public subsidies received by different media outlets (with the notable exception of the COVID-19 stimulus which was granted to most private entities) nor on money paid for advertising. The main, if not only, source of information in the case of the latter are parliamentary questions raised by the Opposition. However, when answering the government only provides full amount spent by a particular Ministry for media services for the interval concerned, without mentioning either what type of media (tv, radio, print) nor which media outlet.
There are a number of legislative developments with direct impact media ownership. First among them are the proposed changes to anti-SLAPP legislation. Malta is the country with the highest number of Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) per capita in the European Union. The lack of adequate mechanisms for protecting journalists means they are vulnerable to political and commercial interference with editorial autonomy. Although, the Maltese government have put forth some proposals to amend this legislation, their proposal was heavily criticized by experts in the field for not addressing the core of the problem.
Second, there is still a legislative gap when it comes to media concentration. Malta’s legal provisions on concentration only expand to radio and television services but do not cover other media such as the press and the new media. According to the Broadcasting Act (as amended in 2010), a provider of a nationwide radio or television service, including the provider of public broadcasting services, may not own, control or be editorially responsible for a community radio service. The Broadcasting authority takes this into consideration when issuing licenses. There are no provisions that would allow the competent authorities to enforce competition rules in a way that takes account of the specificities of the media sector. Furthermore, no official data is collected about media concentration in Malta, making it very difficult to assess the state of play.
Thirdly, there is no law that makes government office incompatible with media ownership. This means that a significant share of the media outlets is in the hands of political parties. This is coupled with a legislative gap when it comes to providing detailed information on advertising revenue, which means that there is a total lack of transparency as to the money received from the government by media outlets affiliated to or controlled by political parties.
Both the printed and broadcast media are easily accessible across the entire country. The printed media is availably at different sales outlets (from small stationaries to large supermarkets) in all villages and towns. In terms of audiovisual content, Maltese households have access to the main TV stations and radios, with the public broadcaster (TVM) still dominating the market. Residents can also access electronic media outlets due to a good Internet infrastructure across the country (88% penetration rate), especially as the cost of Internet is highly competitive compared to other Western European countries. Moreover, 90% of people in Malta aged between 16 and 74 use the internet (2022 NSO Report). 85% of these access online social networks at least once a day, with Facebook, Instagram and YouTube being the most popular platforms (MISCO 2022 Report). The same report, showed that while physical media usage remains low, with just 7% of people reading magazines and 8% of people reading newspapers, there is an increasing trend towards people reading newspapers online (via their apps or websites). The same applies to television, where 31% of people preferred to consume their TV online.
The decline of print media and the gradual shift from one-to-many free-to-air broadcast media to internet mediated information sources is not unique to Malta. The main difference perhaps is that the main parties’ ownership of traditional radio and TV outlets with their own newsrooms has also seen these politically-affiliated “influencers” consciously and gradually try to reach their traditional public as well as wider audiences through a mixture of Internet-based media. At this stage, the political party or individual most capable of understanding how best to use the Internet in order to identify whom to target, how and when with their subtle or not-so-subtle political messages may possibly benefit most in forthcoming elections. It is clear that opinion-making in Malta is seriously and increasingly impacted by messages and campaigns waged via a blend of social media with traditional broadcast media growingly pushed from main to complementary and sometimes a secondary role. Moreover, in a small society where practically every body knows everybody else, formal knowledge and structures about ownership of media may be less important than in other much larger states. This is especially the case, also because in Malta, more than any other European countries, political choices are made more on “tribal grounds” (i.e. being born to families which traditionally voted Labour or Nationalist) or as part of an entrenched system of clientelism where votes can still be bought through social housing provided at peppercorn rents or direct employment with Governement or parastatal agencies. This does not mean that media of all sorts do not remain important or influential. It simply means that the extent to which they remain important or influential may be different to those in many other larger European states.
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Country report published in September 2023