The 2011 broadcasting legislation has the potential to take the country back to the pre-2001 period

Dear Editor,

In May 2001, a joint committee, co-chaired by Deryck Bernard and  Gail Teixeira, sat down to begin deliberations on several specific issues identified by the then President of Guyana and the Leader of the Opposition, namely,  (i) putting an end to the state monopoly on radio broadcasts; (ii) proposing a formula to set up non-partisan boards for the Guyana Chronicle, GTV (now NCN) and the National Frequency Management Unit (NFMU); and (iii) outlining provisions for broadcast legislation.   From the outset, the co-chairpersons agreed that partisan politics would be shunned and the deliberations of the committee would be driven by a “put Guyana first” approach. Indeed, as stated in the committee’s final report, the issues were treated in a holistic and integrated manner within the framework of a broadcast policy for Guyana aimed at serving “the national good and the best public interest.”

Between May and December 2001, the joint committee debriefed TV station owners and media consultants and experts, researched legislation and best practices in other countries and dissected previous reports on broadcast policy in Guyana. At no time were the discussions marred by political rancour or narrow calculations. Bernard, indeed, often expressed anxiety that the bad forces at Freedom House would swoop down and pull his fellow co-chairperson Teixeira back in line. It didn’t happen.

In the end, a final signed report was presented to Desmond Hoyte and Bharrat Jagdeo in December 2001 and adopted by the parties as the way forward for broadcasting policy and regulation in Guyana. In the report, a detailed design was outlined for a national broadcast authority to administer broadcasting policy in Guyana. A broadcasting policy itself was also spelt out. Many of the committee’s recommendations have been transferred into the broadcasting legislation passed in parliament amidst stiff opposition in 2011. But alas, not all.

Much of the opposition to the legislation had to do with the formula to determine the composition of the National Broadcasting Authority (NBA).  The joint committee’s recommendation 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. As I recall, this was a decision the committee (and political parties) made easily without a squabble. To be sure, there was an eleventh hour intervention into the joint committee’s deliberations by then PR czar Robert Persaud to persuade the PNCR-nominated members that no broadcast policy worth its paper could be bereft of strong government control. But he quickly withdrew himself after making this dubious presentation.

The public is now aware, of course, that the joint committee’s agreement on the NBA was discarded by the ruling party and the composition of the NBA is now determined by a formula enshrined in the Broadcasting Act No 17 of 2011 that gives the President the power to select up to six persons, with the Leader of Opposition selecting one. This is where the central problem lies. The problem is not in the absence or presence of expertise and experience in broadcasting of the selectees. Many jobs (think of a brain surgeon) do require expertise and intelligence; others require open-mindedness, dedication and intelligence. Expertise in these cases may be a desired but not always a necessary qualification.

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.

Yours faithfully,
Sherwood Lowe

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