The Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) has dubbed the new broadcast law “defensive and ill-considered,” saying that it makes the PPP/C administration appear to be reluctant to divest its monopoly over broadcasting.
“Unable to continue to deny licences to independent operators, the PPP/C government has concocted a defensive and ill-considered piece of draft legislation, impelled by control and insularity,” the GHRA says in a comment on the legislation that was originally intended for a select committee review. “Unfortunately the structure, tone and thrust of the Broadcasting Bill conveys an impression of a government reluctant to share what it appears to believe is its legitimate monopoly of control over broadcasting,” it added.
The GHRA charged that the “unseemly haste” adopted by the government both “prevented submissions and devalued” the parliamentary process. The government passed the Broadcasting Bill in July, despite a late move by the main opposition PNCR-1G to have the second reading deferred or to have the legislation sent to a Special Select Committee. The other opposition party, the AFC, supported the bill.
According to the human rights body, the new law needs to be considered in the context of what it described as the restrictive right to freedom of expression in the constitution, which it noted was written originally to provide legal respectability to the authoritarian powers accumulated in the hands of President Forbes Burnham.
Article 146(2) (b) of the Constitution, dealing with the right to freedom of expression, amply illustrates this defect, it said, while noting that limitations on the right are justified by such considerations as “regulating the technical administration or technical operation of telephony, telegraphy, posts wireless broadcasting or television, or ensuring fairness and balance in the dissemination of information to the public.” It further cited a critique of an earlier draft of the new law, by Lord Lester, who had noted that Article 146 is far more restrictive than Article 19 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and that the draft law was inadequate with respect to guaranteeing or protecting the right to freedom of expression.
“The Broadcasting Bill, by conforming with the flawed Constitution rather than international human rights law, is unacceptably restricted, reinforcing the conclusion that the human rights of Guyanese citizens will continue to suffer until the present Constitution of Guyana is thoroughly reformed,” the GHRA said as a result.
The group was also critical of the proposed Broadcasting Authority envisaged under the new legislation.
It said the structure of the Authority in which the Executive President appoints all except one member is offensive in a democratic society. “Not only should the Authority be independent of the President, it should be appointed by Parliament, reflect the interests of all sections of society and be independent of governmental control entirely,” the GHRA argued, while adding that it is the task of such an independent Commission to set media standards, regulate and monitor compliance with those standards.
It also pointed to “excessive powers” that would allow the Minister to interfere and direct the Authority on all manner of issues. There are provisions for the minister to notify the Authority of international obligations they must take into account; to be consulted on rules governing advertising; to oblige the Authority to broadcast notices; and to censor programmes by “requiring the Authority to refrain from including any matter or classes of matter specified in the Notice Authority.”
The broadcasting policy set out in the legislation, the GHRA further said, is obsessed with a narrow nationalistic view of the world, restricting broadcasting to “Guyanese expression,” “Guyanese rich cultural diversity,” “the circumstances and aspirations of Guyanese” and “national values.” No reference is made to universal values, GHRA noted. It also pointed out that ownership of broadcasting services is restricted to Guyanese nationals and “CARICOM nationals” and GHRA observed that it is unclear how this restriction will be enforced when CARICOM permits non-CARICOM entities to operate within CARICOM.
With regard to licensing, GHRA added that the “sweeping nature” of Section 23(2), which says “The Authority shall in its deliberations to grant broadcast licences, be guided by considerations of national security, public safety and order” is unacceptable. It further added that the specific regulations operationalising such clauses should be available in order to understand how they will be interpreted. The GHRA also said that Section 24(2) (b), which stipulates that the Authority shall have regard to whether the applicant is a fit person to hold a licence, is unacceptable.
The General Provision relating to the treatment of religious broadcasting found in Section 34(1) (d) is “clumsy,” it added, while saying that the requirement that “due balance and fairness is preserved on the part of the licensee providing the service on matters of national political or industrial controversy or relating to current public policy” in Section (34(1) (c) “is simply absurd.” “This provision is made even more ridiculous in [Section] 34(4) which states that “In the rules referred to in subsection (3), the Authority may make different provision therein for different cases or circumstances including community or regional specific services”. How the Authority can ensure compliance with “due balance and fairness” when its own composition explicitly violates these values is not explained,” it said.
The GHRA also described the Section dealing with offences and penalties as oppressive and offensive, while adding that with respect to offensive broadcasts, the broadcaster rather than the media owner ought to be held primarily liable.
Additionally, it urged that the criteria for “hate speech” be more narrowly drawn. It also urged for more specificity with regards to the reasons for varying and cancelling licences as well as in the general conditions governing licences.