GHRA says ‘shockingly partisan’ radio licensing blow to free speech

-sees communications being farmed out to ruling party allies

The government has sought to hand control over the country’s communications industry to “family, friends and associates” of the ruling PPP, according to the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA), which has dubbed the developments blows to free speech.

“The formidable control of what the nation will see, hear and communicate in future years is being amassed in the hands of an elite group whose common denominator appears to be their closeness to the former Head of State, President [Bharrat] Jagdeo,” the human rights group said yesterday in a statement issued after a quarterly meeting of its Executive Committee, held last Saturday, and at which resolutions approved at the Members Meeting were considered for appropriate action.

The GHRA said it had only two months ago addressed the issue of freedom of expression and information when the gift of a 24-hour TV station to the Republic of China, operating out of the state-owned National Communications Network (NCN), dominated public concern. Since then, it said, there has been an “escalation” of abuses.

“That issue was displaced last month by the allocation of radio licenses in a shockingly partisan and nepotistic manner,” it said. “Before that blow to free speech could be properly digested, the government’s intentions behind the e-governance internet cable from Brazil began to emerge – namely, handing further control of the communications industry to family, friends and associates of the ruling party, ” it added. In recent weeks, the government has been roundly criticised by various groups over the distribution of radio licences and frequencies.

The widespread belief that the e-governance project is yet another pretext for personal accumulation by those close to the levers of political power is reinforced by the lack of transparency and professionalism in the manner in which the project is being implemented, the GHRA said. It noted too that while e-governance, also linked to the one-laptop-per-family project, is promoted as reducing the time involved in obtaining documents, such as birth certificates and driving licenses, the reality is that the control of lucrative cable and internet services is being passed to a favoured few.

The GHRA also said that infrastructure for this development is funded by what is becoming a familiar formula: tax-payers standing the investment cost before the finished product is handed over to “unknown friends.” It noted that US$32 million is the reported initial figure for the cable from Brazil. “In this respect the ‘e’ in e-governance would appear to stand for ‘enrichment,’” the human rights body charged.

The group said too that appeals for fairness in the communications industry has been met by resistance from Chairperson of the Guyana National Broadcasting Authority (GNBA), Bibi Shadick, a former minister in the Jagdeo administration. “Her refusal to re-consider the blatant unfairness shown in the distribution of radio licenses mirrors the insensitivity of the GNBA to the partisan procedure by which all, except one of its members, are appointed by the President,” it noted.
It added that operations in the Office of the President also convey a sense of impunity or exemption from normal rules, laws and standards of decency. “This was recently reflected in the high-handed manner in which decisions were taken regarding the location of the communications tower, associated with the cable from Brazil, in the Plaisance Community playing field,” it said.

As a result, the GHRA said that while the Resolution passed at its 22nd Members Meeting in early February called for a Parliamentary Committee to revisit the appointments procedure for the GNBA, the developments over the past months clearly indicate the need for more drastic measures.” It also observed that it is precisely such threats to freedom of information and expression which led the parliamentary opposition to withhold budgetary support to the government communications services in 2012.

Sexual Offences Act
In addition to addressing freedom of expression and information, the GHRA also highlighted the concerns about the failure to implement the Sexual Offences Act and the recommendations made by the Linden Commission of Inquiry to compensate Linden victims.

Regarding the Resolution by its members calling for full implementation of the Sexual Offences Act, the group noted the extensive lack of public awareness of the Act. It said the focus of media attention on the long-standing limitations of police and court procedures has contributed to other matters of critical importance to the successful implementation of the Act being relegated to the back burner. Coordination of services to victims, for example, remains a particularly important issue, it said.

A pro-active approach to the work of the Sexual Offences Task Force, as mandated by the Act is also the key to progress in implementation, it argued. The Task Force has been inaugurated on two occasions, in 2010 and 2012, but its infrequent meetings (two) were dominated by men with agenda that bore little relation to the needs of female victims, it, however, lamented.

The GHRA also noted the positive improvements in the Accident and Emergency (A&E) Unit at Georgetown Hospital, stemming from the co-management arrangements with the Vanderbilt University Medical Centre. It hoped that this arrangement will facilitate a review of the triage procedures at hospital, which currently often lead to rape victims spending hours awaiting attention as they are frequently labelled as “non-urgent.” “An under-appreciated knock-on effect of the lack of co-ordination is the amount of time women police officers spend accompanying sexual assault victims to A&E. Availability of rape kits and the ‘morning after’ emergency prophylaxis should be a priority at all A&E,” it said.

The GHRA also examined the recent police crackdown on vending of pornographic DVDs and it noted that random prosecution of occasional vendors is not an adequate response to the apparent expansion in local production of such DVDs involving Guyanese girls. It contended that a more coordinated approach is required based on the premise that girls are frequently drugged or coerced into such activity. “Without such a starting point, prosecution of sex-related crimes will parallel prosecution of narcotic drugs – focusing on the small hustlers while leaving the king-pins untouched,” it said.

It also warned that another possible area of sexual criminal activity relates to the upsurge of women entering the country from Brazil via Lethem en route to either local mining centres, Georgetown or Suriname. The GHRA said an average of 100 girls per week cross the borders via this route. Mini-bus drivers involved in this practice are paid about US$700 per person for women in possession of passports but entering illegally. “This sum allegedly includes payments to the police at Mabura, Linden and 58 Miles,” the group said. Some of the women travel via Georgetown directly to Suriname and the extent to which this movement of women represents some form of trafficking is still difficult to determine.
A little reported phenomenon is the number of Nigerian women operating illegally in Guyana; many of whom work in hair-dressing salons due to their skills in intricate weaving and braiding, it also noted.

Linden Commission  of Inquiry
According to the group, very few of the recommendations that emerged from the Linden Commission of Inquiry (COI) into the death of protestors on July 18, 2012 provide a basis for reform of police practices. “Lindeners may rightly feel insulted by the results of the COI. Including local members in a COI is not without risk since it encourages the Commission deferring to them on matters of local law and constitution,” it said.

The Executive Committee of the GHRA considered the recommendations by the commissioners regarding compensation to the Linden victims to be distasteful and uncaring; noting that the recommendations were for paltry sums, “contrasting sharply with the princely remuneration and accommodation expenses required for the cost of the Commission itself.”

Meanwhile, the GHRA Executive also reinforced a Resolution calling for a national consultation or conversation on the future of the coast of Guyana. More attention must be given to applying information communications technology (ICT) to the search for solutions to flooding and re-location, it also noted.

The GHRA also welcomed the laying of charges against the officer involved in the police brutality case in the Marudi mining area. “Apart from the viciousness of the act in itself, the fact of beating a woman with a child on the ground re-ignites the violence against women issue and requires that this case be brought to a prompt conclusion,” it said. In addition, it noted that it is still unclear whether internal disciplinary action has been taken by Guyana Geology and Mines Commission under whose authority the police were reportedly operating.

The Executive also endorsed the work of the FacingtheFuture (FtF) coalition with respect to citizenship issues and local government. It said it intends to prioritise leaflets produced by the FtF on ‘Re-discovering Citizenship’ and ‘problem-solving in local communities.’

The GHRA also noted the lengthy periods of time persons have been forced to wait in line to conduct business at a number of government and private agencies. This presents a particular hardship for to pensioners, expectant mothers and persons with disabilities. The GHRA hoped that these agencies will implement systems to resolve this problem including hiring more staff.

The meeting also confirmed the honorary appointments of Michelle Kalamandeen as Executive Secretary, Fiona Johnny as Treasurer and Natasha George as Assistant Secretary/Treasurer.

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