Sharma off the air, groups mull options

CNS Channel Six ceased operations at 6 pm yesterday following a four-month suspension by President Bharrat Jagdeo over remarks broadcast about Bishop Juan Edghill and a range of groups rallied last evening in support of the station and were considering options to challenge the sanction.

Broadcaster, CN Sharma earlier yesterday received his official letter of suspension which was signed by Jagdeo. Sharma who is also the leader of the Justice For All Party first learnt of his fate during a meeting with Jagdeo at the Office of the President last Friday.

According to the letter, the suspension was effective from 6 pm yesterday and not midnight as Sharma had been told during the meeting.
The letter stated that according to Advisory Committee on Broadcasting (ABC), the station in airing the commentary, contravened Regulation 23A, Guyana Post and Telegraph Act, Chapter 47:01 Laws of Guyana. That Act according to the letter states that “(a) the licensee should ensure that nothing is included in programmes which offends against good taste or decency or is likely to encourage or incite racial hatred or incite to crime or to lead to public disorder or to be offensive to public feeling; (b) the licensee, acting responsibly and in good faith, shall ensure that any news given (in whatever form) in the programmes of the licensee is presented with due accuracy and impartiality; (c) the licensee should ensure that due responsibility is exercised with respect to the content of any religious programme of the licensee and that in particular, any such programme, does not involve any abusive or derogatory treatment of the religious views and beliefs of persons belonging to a particular religion and religious denomination and (d) the programme broadcast by the licensee shall be of the highest possible standard”.

The members of that committee were Chairman E Persaud, the nominee of the leader of the opposition R Case and the private sector nominee N Mc Lean. According to Jagdeo this committee provided him with their considerations and conclusion of the complaints about the channel’s airing of the commentary.

A section of the crowd gathered for the vigil

“Their finding constitutes offences (by licensees) against the constitution, the Laws of Guyana and your licence. On that basis, you are asked to note the above and are advised that the recommendation of the Advisory Committee on Broadcasting to me called for the following sanction: A suspension of your licence for a minimum period of six months,” the letter said.

The president said that in accepting the recommendation of the ACB he imposed the sanction on Sharma and if there is a failure to comply it would lead to the “immediate revocation of your CNS Channel 6 licence to broadcast”.

Difficulties
Moments after last Friday’s meeting, Sharma had told reporters that according to the president the ACB had recommended eight months but that Jagdeo said that “he was lenient to us and he will give us four months …”

He said that Jagdeo took into consideration the contents of the discussions and the fact that Sharma had encountered difficulties with bank payments and decided to halve the original recommendation.

As a result of the suspension, Sharma was forced to send home more than 30 employees. When Stabroek News visited the studio yesterday afternoon, some furniture had already been removed and only a handful of employees were standing around.

A sombre looking Sharma said the next move in response to the suspension is now left to the opposition leader. “Elections is close, only two months. Christmas around the corner and I don’t believe it was fair to close the station down when I am giving all the political parties [air] time.”

He said, “I am not a lawyer but I know they breached somewhere…” He said he is still thinking about the avenues that can be taken and is receiving advice.

Solidarity
Many joined in solidarity with Sharma including members of opposition and members of civil society. Yesterday, a meeting involving opposition members and members of several non governmental organisations (NGOs) was hastily called at City Hall to discuss the next possible move.

Just before that discussion got underway, Leader of the PNCR and Opposition Leader, Robert Corbin told members of the media that the Sharma suspension was a matter of importance. Corbin said the suspension had nothing to do with Sharma or Channel Six but rather “what we see is a direct assault on the political parties that are about to contest the forthcoming elections. Having regard to the fact that the government has monopolized the state media and at the same time silenced the only other reasonably well aired television channel that has been receptive to the messages of other political parties”.

He said it would be a mockery to speak about a free and fair elections when the voices of the participants to the electoral process are forced to be silent in this most “recent vicious attack on freedom of expression in Guyana”.

Attorney-at-law and chartered accountant Christopher Ram who was part of the meeting later said that a committee had been set up to deal with the suspension along with issues related to the elections.

Meanwhile, dozens turned up for a candlelight vigil outside the Robb and Wellington Streets studio last evening.
The group, a few actually holding candles sang hymns accompanied by drumming. Several persons spoke briefly to the gathering about the suspension and what it meant for the freedom of all Guyanese.

Gerhard Ramsaroop speaking on behalf of the Alliance For Change (AFC) expressed “deep disappointment” with the suspension. He said his party believes that the frivolous explanation given by Jagdeo is “intended to cloud the real intention being the suspension. The closure of Sharma’s station in a critical period preceding the 2011 elections is calculated to silence all voices of dissent. It is a shameful breach of the spirit and intent of democratic process. Moreover this suspension has to be seen as a blatant attack on the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression.”
He said that the party stands in solidarity with the management and staff of CNS 6 and called on all Guyanese to put their differences aside and do the same.

New phase
APNU’s Rupert Roopnaraine said that this issue represents a new phrase for Guyana. He called on Jagdeo to “take back the letter and reopen the station at once” before questioning in which part of the world a president could close down an independent station weeks before a general election.

Roopnaraine pointed out that the state-owned NCN is the voice of Jagdeo and PPP presidential candidate Donald Ramotar and “that is the only station we should listen to”.
He said that CNS 6 has been an avenue for opposition parties to air their views. He said that based on what has been done to Sharma, it seems the government is in “full panic mood”. He urged those in attendance to be on the alert. “We have to anticipate more viciousness in the future,” he said.

He added that APNU and the AFC approached the Guyana Elections Commission earlier in the day to say that that entity has responsibility for free and fair elections and this includes the opposition speaking freely on the air.

Dr Joey Jagan above applause from the crowd said that Sharma was his good friend and stressed that the only way to defeat the government was at the polls. “Some people come and talk stupidness on his [Sharma’s] show and they should be made to pay too,” adding that there needs to be a demonstration in the city to protest Sharma’s suspension.

Ram said that there could never be free and fair elections if politicians cannot have access to television while Mayor Hamilton Green described the day as a “dangerous, dark” one in this country.

Sharma who was first to speak said that all politicians must be able to utilize the state-owned media. “I strongly believe that it is because I have been giving the opposition including APNU air time. I strongly believe this is the reason,” he stressed before adding that this suspension is every Guyanese’s problem.

He noted too that the day was a day of fasting on the Hindu religious calendar. He said that it is a shame that Jagdeo would close him down on such a day.
“Why he had to take his time to close this station? He personally intervened in this matter,” he said.
Others present included Stella Ramsaroop and Peter Ramsaroop.
The vigil will continue indefinitely.

Sharma had been awaiting a ruling from Jagdeo on whether the station’s licence would be suspended or revoked after he was cited by the ACB for breaches of the conditions of his licence, following the controversial commentary on Edghill by Anthony Vieira.

CNS Channel 6 offered an “unequivocal apology” to Edghill for the “embarrassment and damage to character” caused by the airing of the commentary. Savitree Singh who is the Programme Director had accepted responsibility for the broadcast, explaining that her staff made a mistake and aired the wrong commentary.
Edghill had complained to the ACB after the broadcast, saying that certain statements made by Vieira were “inaccurate, unsubstantiated and misleading.”

In a letter to the Chairman of the ACB, Edghill said the “misleading and inflammatory statements and unsubstantiated allegations” constituted a breach of the Guyana Post and Telegraph Act, Chapter 47:01, Regulation 23A.

He added that “there can be no excuse on the part of the licensee that they were unaware of the content because it was a live programme, and Vieira in the said commentary indicated that he had written it two months before it was aired but had problems with its recording.”

According to Edghill, “the fact that it was recorded then aired indicates that it was presumptuous, calculated and done with the intent to cause harm even though the licensee is aware of possible sanctions.”

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