President failed to address radio licences scandal

When asked on Friday about the growing scandal over the issuing of radio licences and frequencies, President Ramotar failed spectacularly to address the many disturbing facets about the actions of former President Jagdeo in the days preceding the November 28, 2011 general elections.

In his reply to a question at a press conference, the President’s feeble defence was that he believed that Mr Jagdeo was fulfilling a commitment to break the radio monopoly.

Said the President: “I see it as a commitment that he had made firstly to break the radio monopoly and secondly to change some of the old laws that were there and to allow more liberalisation in this area… so I suspect he was fulfilling a commitment he made very early in his second term…from that point of view I don’t see anything irregular”.

Fulfilling promises is a great thing. It is the stock in trade of politicians like Mr Jagdeo and President Ramotar. Where, however, the fulfilment of a promise breaches other undertakings and is rife with irregularities then it must be repudiated and set right. The President made no acknowledgment of the well-founded concerns that have arisen and now been given substance by virtue of Prime Minister Hinds answering a question from the AFC MP Mrs.
Cathy Hughes.

The President also failed to address the unease over the fact that multiple frequencies had been assigned to some operators. He tried to brush it off as the facilitating of the wider reach of signals.

Even if that was the only issue it would still be a matter of concern as several other long-serving local stations have been repeatedly denied permission to take steps to extend their signal countrywide. The stark fact remains that favoured applicants were given multiple frequencies on a limited spectrum to broadcast on whereas others with worthier credentials were ignored.

Inevitably, as has become the PPP’s trademark, President Ramotar also sought comfort for President Jagdeo’s decision in events of the PNC’s days when he said that WRHM Channel 7 had two television licences issued to it although it was “never registered as a company”. It would appear from the President’s argument that one questionable act 20 years back deserves another today. Harking back to the PNC is always a convenient go-to for the PPP but it doesn’t get it off the hook.

The facts on the ground call into question the propriety of former President Jagdeo’s actions and the only remedy possible is the quashing of the entire exercise and beginning de novo.

President Jagdeo had given a commitment to the late PNCR Leader Mr Hoyte that  no new broadcasting licences would be issued until the broadcasting authority was in place. Yet, for a decade, the PPP/C retained the state’s stranglehold on the broadcast sector and used what was meant to be only an interim and short-lived mechanism, the Advisory Committee on Broadcasting, to target stations perceived as opponents.

The court’s ruling in 2009 in favour of Vieira Communications Television (VCT) with respect to the radio monopoly provided an opportunistic opening for the government but still it took several more  years to act. By this time, a company which had been in good favour with President Jagdeo acquired the assets of VCT but should ideally have had to apply separately for a broadcast licence which it didn’t.

In the meanwhile a new broadcasting authority act which had been called for by the opposition and civil society for many years was eventually presented in Parliament by the government.  This is what now exposes Mr Jagdeo’s actions. Even though the broadcast authority act had been passed and assented to in September 2011, Mr Jagdeo proceeded to award radio licences and assign frequencies in November 2011 even though any reasonable-minded person would be forgiven for assuming that this process could have waited a few months longer for the composing of the broadcasting authority envisaged by the act.

Of course, Mr Jagdeo would have perceived the risk of a loss of power at the pending general elections and might have thought it was essential to clear the way for those he was determined should have licences. How exactly were his decisions arrived at? Who assisted him in arriving at these decisions? What were their qualifications? And what became of the applications of established media houses like Stabroek News which would have surely succeeded in each category?

Former President Jagdeo was completely silent on the orchestration of the new licences and his successor, based on Friday’s performance,  has evinced no interest in establishing the truth of the matter. Any objective evaluation of what the former President did just days before the elections will arrive at varied conclusions including that his allocations represented an abuse of power and the worst type of governance. His actions demonstrate why it is crucial for all of government’s business to be open to scrutiny and for the strengthening of regulatory institutions to oversee transactions like the one Mr Jagdeo blessed.

The manner of President Ramotar’s answer on Friday made it seem as if he felt no connection to Mr Jagdeo’s decision. This is a fallacy that he must be disabused of. As the current holder of the office, President Ramotar’s responsibility to the populace is to provide a reasoned and reasonable explanation to the public otherwise the indiscretions of his predecessor in office become his.

The grotesque handling of the radio licences and frequencies by the Jagdeo administration is the type of event that will interest people from watchdog bodies like Transparency International, multilateral financial institutions and friendly countries. President Ramotar surely has to be aware that none of them will be impressed with the answers thus far provided.

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