The Malta Independent 13 July 2024, Saturday
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Robert Aquilina… and when Tan-Numri group stormed Bongu Malta on TVM

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 15 October 2023, 08:00 Last update: about 10 months ago

The way Repubblika president Robert Aquilina was treated when he held a press conference at Public Broadcasting Services to denounce how the State broadcaster is doing everything in its power to protect the government while giving no voice to any critical elements is a similar repetition of what happened nearly 40 years ago.

A few days ago, Aquilina was summoned by the police after a complaint was filed against him for daring to turn up at PBS, with a banner on which the word “censura” (censorship) was written, to highlight how the national station is acting as a gatekeeper for anything which is against the government, while at the same time promoting its work.

In comments he gave to the media, he said that he had been “cautioned” by the police for speaking out at the entrance to the PBS premises. Do it again, and you’ll be in deeper trouble, was the underlying message. There was no word on whether he would be charged, or what the possible offences were. Neither was he given a copy of the complaint that was filed against him. Aquilina described this as an act of intimidation and a threat to his freedom of expression. Rather than arrest the people involved in the benefits fraud and driving licences scandal, “the police want to interrogate me for a press conference,” Aquilina said.

Four decades ago, right in the middle of what was a tense period in Maltese history with a Labour government in power without having obtained the majority of votes in the 1981 election, the national broadcaster, then known as Xandir Malta, was also under fire for the way it acted as a propaganda machine for the government, while ignoring any voices of dissent. It was the time when not even the name of the Leader of the Opposition, Eddie Fenech Adami, was mentioned.

A group of young people, then known as Tan-Numri, had decided to protest about the state of affairs at the national broadcasting station. The Tan-Numri group had become known for its stunts through which it highlighted important issues that were affecting the country at the time. They got their name because the date and time of their next activity was indicated in eight numbers that were then printed on the Nationalist party newspaper, at the time named “In-…. Taghna”, as the word “nazzjon” (nation) was prohibited per law enacted by the then Labour government.

The first four numbers gave the date, the last four numbers the time. So if it was 15100930 it meant that there was to be an event on 15 October at 9.30am. The meeting place was not mentioned in the newspaper, but it was passed on via a series of telephone calls. There were no mobile phones at the time, no social media or whatsapp groups. Not every family had a landline either. It was not an easy exercise.

In those years, Xandir Malta used to air a Sunday morning programme, called Bongu Malta. It moved from one locality to another every week, a sort of on-the-road magazine programme. On one particular Sunday, it was probably in 1985, one edition was held in Bahrija.

It must be remembered that in those years only Xandir Malta was available to Maltese viewers, alongside a few Italian TV stations. There was no cable or internet TV. There were no other Maltese stations either, as TVM held a monopoly.

Tan-Numri group members turned up in Bahrija that morning, mingling with the crowd of onlookers who were following what was taking place while the programme was being aired, live, to all households.

They had received specific instructions on what was to happen. They knew they had one chance, one that would have lasted a few seconds, and they could not mess it up. As soon as one of the cameras panned on them, someone was to blow a whistle, and there was to be an immediate raising of placards with “Ahna rridu xandir hieles” (we want free broadcasting) while the same words were to be chanted in unison.

The whistle was blown, the placards were raised, and the words were chanted. It worked to perfection.

But what came afterwards could not be planned. The cameras went off air, but not before the viewers could see the protestors and hear their words. What followed were minutes of confusion as the Tan-Numri members ran back to the buses that had taken them to Bahrija as they were chased by police officers and others.

It did not stop here. Eventually, the buses were escorted by police cars to the Hamrun police station – incidentally the same police station that Aquilina was summoned to a few days ago. The Tan-Numri members who had taken part in the stunt were held there for a few hours during which, one by one, they were taken off the bus and spoken to by an officer. Their particulars were taken, and so from that day the police (but probably not only the police) knew the names of the group members.

Of course, the Bongu Malta stunt was not reported on the 8pm news on TVM that night.  

 

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