Lowe says lack of public confidence in broadcast authority not a good starting point
-Ramotar defends broadcast board appointees
The lone opposition nominee to the National Broadcasting Authority, Sherwood Lowe says that lack of public confidence in the body is not a good starting point even as former broadcaster, Tony Vieira says that the method of selection of members without consultation is “unacceptable” and he supports the repealing of the Act.
On Friday, President Donald Ramotar defended the appointees to the governing board of the NBA as the best candidates, while disclosing that a legal background was the main criterion used to make the selection. “You needed people with legal knowledge, a legal background. You needed people with some experience on these issues so it was on that basis [that I appointed them]. These are people who I think would be competent people,” Ramotar said during a press conference in response to a query as to what the criteria for choosing the members of the authority were.
Government announced earlier this month that the board of the authority, to be headed by former Minister of Human Services Bibi Shadick, also includes Margo Boyce, Gerry Gouveia, Norman McLean, Dr Dindial Permaul, Charles Ramson Jr as well as Lowe, who was nominated by the Leader of the Opposition David Granger. Ramotar said that a group of “competent people” are on the board and he noted that Lowe brings some experience as “he did a lot of work on this in a previous time.” Asked about suggestions that broadcast experience should be a prerequisite for selection, Ramotar stated that it was not the only qualification needed to be appointed to the board.
Lowe, in a letter to Stabroek News, has said that the problem is not in the absence or presence of expertise and experience in broadcasting of the selectees. He pointed out that the composition of the NBA is determined by a formula enshrined in the Broadcasting Act of 2011 that gives the President the power to select up to six persons, with the Leader of Opposition selecting one and this is where the central problem lies.
“The 2011 broadcasting legislation, as it stands, has the clear potential to take the country back to the pre-2001 period that forced the political parties to establish an inter-party committee on broadcasting in the first place. The indications are that public confidence is lacking that the NBA can fulfil its mandate as envisioned in the report of the joint committee. This is not a good starting point. It remains to be seen if the government will entertain the amendments the opposition parties have indicated they intend to table in parliament,” he said.
With reference to discussions by a joint committee on broadcasting, presented to then president Bharrat Jagdeo in December 2001 and adopted by the parties as the way forward for broadcasting policy and regulation in Guyana but aspects of which were not included in the 2011 legislation, Lowe recalled that the joint committee’s recommendation for the composition of the NBA stated that commissioners of the authority would be “selected by the Standing Parliamentary Committee on Appointments and appointed by the President.” Further, the parties agreed that the chairperson of NBA would be “elected by the board at its first meeting.” This agreement was considered so crucial for the fair and autonomous administration of broadcasting in Guyana that it was underlined for emphasis in the committee’s report, he recounted. This aspect was not included in the Act of 2011.
Meantime, in an invited comment, Vieira said that the method of selection of the members of the NBA is “completely unacceptable” to those “who fought the PPP since the first PPP broadcast Bill surfaced in 1995.”
“We demanded then, as we do now, that the authority should be chosen in a completely transparent manner and they must be autonomous, at least the first 1995 bill had the words that the authority must be independent, this bill does not say so…” he said. “We must not accept a bill where the president without having to consult anyone can appoint 6 of the seven members of the Broadcast Authority and the opposition can appoint only one. It’s ridiculous! We had asked since 1995 that the broadcast authority be chosen by a 2/3 majority of parliament,” he declared.
Vieira said that a motion should be placed in parliament which should state that “Whereas the Act No. 13 of 2011 violates the constitutional rights of Article 146 [freedom of speech] and 149 [equality of treatment under the law] and whereas it has destroyed the vested rights of broadcasters prior to its enactment by requiring them to apply for a new licence under this new Act and since the authority is not autonomous due to a flawed method of selection of its members be it resolved that the Act No. 13 of 2011 be repealed immediately.” Vieira said that the qualifications of those selected to be part of the broadcasting authority are woefully inadequate and unacceptable.
Further, he said that the 2011 Act violates the constitution at Article 146 [freedom of speech] and Article 149 [equality of treatment] under the law. According to him, under the Act, a reporter in the newspapers has few restrictions put on him (that is he does not have to be fair and balanced, with due respect for the reputations of others, double checking and going to the source if necessary) which a reporter on a TV station is required to do because he has to abide by a licence: “he has to accept prior censorship.”
Vieira said that the Guyana Human Rights Association has also condemned the Act since it violates Article 19 of the Covenant of Civil and Political Rights of 1976 to which Guyana is a signatory. “Since the TV reporter has this prior censorship placed on him, his rights under Article 146 of the Guyana Constitution are violated, and since he has to check and recheck his sources [to be fair and balanced] which his comrades in other sections of the media do not have to do, he is subjected not only to prior censorship but to inequality under the law, a constitutional right guaranteed under Article 149 of the constitution. No one must be told that they can’t say this or that before they say it in the media, only after saying it can anyone judge him/her,” he said.
“The international Covenant on Civil and Political Rights tells us under principles of freedom of expression and broadcast regulation ‘broadcast content should never be subject to prior censorship either by the government or by regulatory bodies, any sanctions for breach of regulatory rules relating to content should be applied only after the material in question has been broadcast.‘ Article 1 of the principles of Article 19 says this: ‘everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes the freedom to seek receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, orally, in print, in the form of art through the broadcast media or through any other media of their choice,‘“ Vieira said.
“This is especially important in a plural society in which inevitably someone will be upset by a report which is received by many as true and fair comment. This bill completely overlooks the broadmindedness which these regulations must have, even when they disturb or upset a section of the population since without that broadmindedness and [the] tolerance necessary in a plural society there cannot be a democratic society,” he added.
After concerns were raised that the authority is almost wholly composed of persons with links to the government, Leader of the Opposition, David Granger said that A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) nominated someone who is going to “look after the public’s interest” to the governing board of the NBA.
AFC’s Chairman Nigel Hughes has said that it is time the opposition move to amend the Broadcast Act. “We certainly believe that the [Act] as it exists clearly does not allow for balanced participation in the composition of the board as evident in the appointments,” he had told Stabroek News.
Echoing comments by veteran broadcaster Enrico Woolford with regard to the expertise of persons appointed to the board, Hughes said: “I have not found any area in which the persons who were identified have the requisite requirements to administer broadcasting.”
The Broadcast Act was passed in July 2011, without the support of the PNCR, the main opposition party at the time. It envisages the establishment of the National Broadcasting Authority, with a Governing Board that will comprise not less than four and not more than seven persons, one of whom shall be its Chairperson.