US human rights report says radio licences lacked transparency

The US government has said that there was a lack of transparency in the granting of 10 radio licences which were issued in 2011 by former President Bharrat Jagdeo shortly before he demitted office.

“In 2011 the government approved applications for 10 new radio stations, although the process was controversial, lacked transparency, and contained further steps needed before the new stations could begin broadcasting,” the US State Department said in its report on Guyana for its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012.

The report said that for the period under review, the government controlled most radio stations, which limited the dissemination of diverse views and open public discussions. It noted that in 2009, the Court of Appeal ruled that the government had an unlawful monopoly on the airwaves and that the National Frequency Management Unit was not adequately considering radio licence applications.

Also in 2011 Parliament passed a broadcasting law that allowed for the establishment of a Guyana National Broadcasting Authority (GNBA) with a governing board appointed by the president. “Observers noted that few of the board members had previous media experience,” the report said while adding that the law states that programs that address controversial public policy or matters of political or industrial contention “must meet standards of fairness, balance, and accuracy, maintaining a proper balance and respect for truth and integrity and always ensuring that opposing views are not misrepresented.”

“On September 5, the government appointed members of a governing board for the GNBA. By year’s end only one new station began operations, and it was closely aligned with the government. The NGO Reporters without Borders criticized press freedom in the country, due largely to its radio broadcasting monopolies,” the US report said.

It noted that the law provides for freedom of speech including for members of the press, and the government generally respected this right in practice though up to last year, the government’s monopoly on radio broadcasting continued. “The government also influenced print and broadcast media and continued to exert heavy control over the content of the National Communications Network (television), giving government spokespersons extended coverage, while limiting participation of opposition figures,” the report said.

In terms of censorship or content restrictions, the report said that in contrast with 2011, there were no government-imposed restrictions on television stations or suspensions of broadcasts. The government largely directed advertising to media houses aligned with the governing party, it added.

“Government officials used libel laws to suppress criticism. A hearing into a 10 million Guyanese dollars ($50,000) libel suit filed by former president Jagdeo in July 2010 against the Kaieteur News publishers, its editor in chief, and one of its columnists began in August 2011 and remained pending at year’s end,” the report noted.

The controversial granting of the radio licences by Jagdeo was criticized by local and regional press groups and on Friday, broadcaster Enrico Woolford moved to the courts to quash Jagdeo’s decision to grant radio and television licences to 10 persons and entities, saying that his actions were unconstitutional.

Glenn Lall, owner of the National Media and Publishing Company Limited (publisher of the Kaieteur News) through his lawyers Roysdale Forde and Keshia Chase also filed a lawsuit on Friday stating that Jagdeo’s decision was a breach of his constitutional rights and was made in bad faith. The Guyana Media Proprietors Association Limited was also listed as an applicant.

Woolford and Lall over the past few weeks have been holding picketing exercises at several locations including the Office of the President and State House to express their dissatisfaction with the situation.

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