Strict content guidelines proposed in broadcast bill

Eyebrows are likely to be raised by programming guidelines under the proposed broadcasting bill, which also says no one person will be able to control more than 25% of the broadcasting industry.

Presented 19 years after the PPP/C entered office, the Broadcasting Bill 2011 was tabled in the National Assembly on Thursday. The bill, under the name of Prime Minister Samuel Hinds, is expected to come up for second reading shortly, at which point it is likely to be consigned to a parliamentary select committee.

Promised a decade ago after the establishment of the interim Advisory Committee on Broadcasting, the bill says that it should be “construed and applied in a manner that is consistent with the right to freedom of expression and journalistic ethics, the provision and production of quality and balanced information for the Guyanese public.”

Its delay had been attributed by the government to the lack of an agreement between the PPP/C and the PNCR over what had been hammered out between President Bharrat Jagdeo and the late Opposition Leader Desmond Hoyte during dialogue in 2001. Although these differences were never resolved, the government has decided to proceed with its own bill with only a few months to go in this term of office.

Broadcasting is defined by the bill as the “transmission of any programme whether or not encrypted and whether or not actually received, by wired or wireless medium or technology for reception by all or part of the general public, but does not include telecommunication.”

The bill envisages the setting up of a Guyana National Broadcasting Authority and a governing board. The board will be responsible for the conduct of its business, activities and other affairs and shall comprise not less than four persons or more than seven, one of whom shall be its chairman. In keeping with the practice by the administration, the President will pick the chairman and all but one of the members of the board. Clause 4 of Part 11 says that the President shall appoint the Chairman and all members of the board. One of the members of the board shall be nominated by the Leader of the Opposition after “meaningful consultation” with the parliamentary opposition parties.

Functions of the authority include the establishment of classes of licences, issuing of licences for terms  not exceeding 10 years and subject to the conditions set out, and the suspension and revocation  of any licence provided that the licensee is given a reasonable opportunity to respond.

Among its duties, the authority shall recommend terms and conditions for licences for radio, TV and any other new broadcast technologies and formulate a system for the monitoring of the programmes of licensees to ensure their adherence to the Act and regulations. The authority shall also conduct research, opinion polls and surveys to assist it in executing its mandate and according to Clause 18(2) k of Part 11 “require licensees to carry a certain percentage of public service broadcast or development support broadcast as public information (deemed) appropriate as a public service at no cost.”

Guidelines

In relation to the granting of licences, the authority shall ensure than all agencies record programmes and keep these for a period of five years after a broadcast. Licensees would also be required to keep adequate broadcast logs and have recordings available for inspection.

The guidelines also focus on content. At Clause 32(i), it says that “all programmes should be fair and balanced in content and show a respect for truth in ways that do not under-represent any significant strand of thought, and that accuracy is founded on a commitment to check, cross-check and, wherever possible, to gather first-hand information from credible documentation, or official spokespersons of fully attributable eye-witnessed sources.”

It says that programmes which address controversial public policy or matters of political or industrial contention “must meet standards of fairness and balance, accuracy, maintaining a proper balance and respect for truth and integrity and always ensuring that opposing views are not misrepresented.”

On the reporting of news, the bill says this should be objective, wide-ranging and well-informed and in reporting controversial matters “the main differing views should be given due weight in the period during which the controversy is active.”

It also mentions the children of public officials where privacy is concerned. Clause 32 (m) says “the privacy of the individual and the private lives of individuals shall be respected in all cases, recognising that intrusions shall be justified on the basis of serving a greater good and that private behaviour should not be brought into the public domain unless there is a wider public interest; this also includes children of public officials.”

All public comment, the bill says, “should be well-mannered and courteous; interviewees must always be given a fair chance to fully respond to questions and interviews should not be aggressive, hectoring or rude.”

The bill says that presenters and contributors to live, phone-in and other programmes must be briefed to minimise the risk of offence in taste, decency and language. Delay mechanism devices “shall be utilised in programmes that are particularly vulnerable to abuse,” the bill also says.

At election time, Clause 32 (p) says that licensees by agreement with political parties and in consultation with the Guyana Elections Commission can afford such parties air time on their stations.

Good taste

In the general provisions about licensed services, Clause 34 (1) (a) says that the authority shall do all to ensure that “nothing is included in its programmes which offends against good taste or decency or is likely to encourage or incite to crime or to lead to violence or threat to public order or to be offensive to public feeling.”

After consultation with the minister, the authority is also to draw up and review rules on the suitability and timing of violent, pornographic material and explicit language programmes when children and adolescents are expected to be watching. It would also be responsible for rules on content “that would violate the constitution and statutes pertaining to defamation and libel, sexual violence, children’s rights and protection, women’s rights, racial hostility, public order and safety as well as ethnically and culturally sensitive material that would cause offence.”

Clause 37 (3) says the Minister responsible for broadcasting may also “at any time where it appears necessary or expedient by notice require the Authority to direct the licensees specified in the notice to refrain from including in the programmes any matter or class of matters specified in the notice; and the Authority shall comply with the notice.”

The bill also sets penalties for broadcasting without a licence and related matters. It also confers the authority with the power to order a licensee to issue a correction or apology or both where there has been an infringement of a condition of the licence.

Control

According to Clause 19 of the bill, broadcasting services would be effectively owned and controlled by Guyanese nationals and CARICOM nationals, provided that in the latter case there are reciprocal provisions governing broadcasting by the country of which the national is a citizen.

Further, no one person can own and control more than 25% of the broadcasting sector. Clause 19 (c) says “while recognising the special role of state-owned media, the broadcast industry is plural and open to fair competition.”

Part 111 of the 57-page bill relates to general provisions about licences and requires at Clause 23 (1) b ii that “not less than fifty-one percent of the voting shares of the company, or not less than fifty-one percent of the trust are on the date of issue of the licence, owned and or controlled by Guyanese nationals.”

Sale of a company, change in directors or the sale and transfer of controlling shares under a licence must be drawn to the attention of the authority and its agreement is required for the sale, change in directors or transfer of controlling shares.

On the issuance of licences, Clause 24 sets out grounds for refusing or granting. The authority will consider whether the applicant is eligible under the Act, “whether the applicant is a fit person to hold a licence” and the programmes proposed to be broadcast in respect of what percentage will be produced in Guyana, CARICOM and further afield.

The authority may also consider whether the area the applicant is seeking to serve is sufficiently serviced by other existing broadcast agencies. Also to be considered is whether the applicant has had a licence suspended or cancelled in the past and the reason for this.

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