‘If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.’ (John Stuart Mill)
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
The Constitution of Guyana contains a similar provision in Article 146 (1): “no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression, that is to say, freedom to hold opinions without interference, freedom to receive ideas and information without interference, freedom to communicate ideas and information without interference….”
The broadcasting licence of Channel Six was suspended for four months effective October 3, 2011. The suspension came as a result of statements being made by Anthony Vieira about Juan Edgehill in a television broadcast aired on Channel Six. According to reports in the media the statements were deemed offensive by the Advisory Committee on Broadcasting (ACB) thereby warranting the sanction imposed.
Following the decision to suspend Channel Six, a cross section of civil society organisations, opposition parties and international organizations such as Reporters without Borders have condemned what appears to be a direct attack on press freedom with a far more sinister agenda than the mere sanctioning of the owners of Channel Six, Chandra Narine and Savitree Sharma.
Later this year Guyanese will go to the polls to vote for the government of their choice. Leading up to the general elections much will be said by all political parties and their supporters about the other political parties. There will be accusations and condemnations on all sides. Character assassinations, criticism and perhaps even hate speech will be in order. These are the hallmarks of any election in any free society.
The media will be the arena within which battles are fought and won and lost. Some will go too far in their criticism. Issues of libel or slander may arise in which case the proper place for redress would be the courts. In a free society this is all as it should be. But in the context of Guyana where there is severely limited access to the state controlled media by non state actors the existence of independent media houses becomes all the more important for the imparting of ideas, criticism and commentary of all political actors in the time leading up to the elections.
In ‘Undermining Democracy: 21st Century Authoritarians‘ the ironically named Freedom House, an international NGO which advocates for press freedom concludes in its extensive study of the policies and practices of several authoritarian states including China and Venezuela, “Authoritarian regimes are tarnishing the public understanding of democracy. A distorted version of the concept is communicated to domestic audiences through state dominated media. Especially on television, these regimes put forth a dual message that stresses their own achievements while belittling core institutions of liberal democracy.”
There are clear parallels to be drawn here in Guyana, especially since the decision to suspend Channel Six’s licence will confer an unfair advantage on the incumbent in the upcoming elections. The removal of Channel Six from the media landscape clearly serves to limit the expression of ideas and opinions that are not supportive of the incumbent administration. Where will the opposition parties be able to promote their manifestos? Will they be able to access National Communications Network? Will they be able to access 98.1 FM? If the answer is that there will not be equal access, that there will be restrictions, then clearly something is going badly wrong in this “democracy.”
Human Rights Education Associates, the international NGO that supports human rights learning, makes a number of observations in respect of restrictions on freedom of expression. On the subject of structural restrictions on the freedom of the press they observe that “exclusion of the media is a very severe restriction on freedom of expression and information in this regard and restrictions should only be placed where there are clear safety concerns.
Restrictions can take the form of press laws which allow for government interference in the media, or which impose unwarranted restrictions on published content. All bodies with regulatory authority over the media, print or broadcast should be fully independent of government.”
Reports indicate that President Jagdeo, the Minister of Information, was advised to suspend Channel Six’s licence by the ACB. He claimed to be taking a wider perspective on the comments made by Vieira, deeming them “reprehensible” to the constitution since they were intended to cause discord within specific religious denominations. But was it really in the public interest to suspend Channel Six’s licence in this election period, and was the infraction or breach by Mr Vieira and the Sharmas so great as to warrant the punishment and its imposition at this time? Or did Mr Vieira go too far in his chosen subject that entailed a discussion about Mr Edgehill? If he did, then the proper place for the matter to be adjudicated is the courtroom where by means of a civil suit Mr Edgehill can seek redress for harm suffered.
As far as regard for due process goes, the further question is whether Mr Jagdeo’s analysis and decision was based on any legal authority or legal advice or was it his personal opinion expressed to the detriment of the Sharmas. Moreover, to what extent do the opinions of the President of Guyana, to whom the ACB reports, influence the decisions of the ACB and can the ACB then be regarded as independent of government?
Certainly the President cannot be so regarded.
In effect the government has created a statutory authority which enables it to control the media. The final say on implementation of punitive recommendations by that committee is given to the President, the head of the executive of the ruling party’s government. The President has exercised that power to silence a critic and a member of the opposition. He has timed his actions to coincide with the run up to general elections. His ruling party continues to monopolize the airwaves through the state run television and radio stations which alone have nationwide coverage.
Every principle of democracy, and especially those espoused in statements quoted above, has been violated by the decision to suspend the licence of Channel Six at this time.