Prior censorship should not be enshrined in the licences of broadcasters

Dear Editor,

The Advisory Committee on Broadcasting was established on November 15, 2001 as a semi-autonomous body, pursuant to regulations made under the Guyana Post and Telegraph Act, Chapter 47:01.

The law states that the ACB will comprise a chairman and two members, the chairman nominated by Guyana’s President, one member nominated by the Leader of the Opposition, and the third by civil society. It does not say Private Sector Commission. I can’t say how they got involved in the act since they do not represent civil society. Its tenure was supposed to extend until the establishment of an impartial Broadcasting Authority. The general understanding was that the committee would advise on appropriate action in cases of violations of the conditions of the licence which is the role usually performed by a Broadcasting Authority.

The formation of the ACB emerged out of an agreement reached between President Jagdeo and then Opposition Leader, Desmond Hoyte. The Memorandum of Understanding dated  November 15, 2001 was intended to ensure that the then minister responsible for broadcasting, ie the Prime Minister, in the execution of his power pursuant to the Act and the Wireless Telegraphy Regulations made thereunder with respect to television station licences, will act in accordance with advice given to him by the ACB. At the ceremony launching the ACB Mr Hoyte said that this was necessary since his party, the People’s National Congress Reform, was concerned with the fact that the Prime Minister was the sole arbitrator who made the decisions to oversee whether television stations were complying with the rules and that there should be installed an independent body to advise him with the clear understanding that he “would accept their advice,” while Mr. Jagdeo said, “In every modern society, radio and television must operate within a regulatory framework in a neutral manner. This is exactly our [PPP] thinking on the matter too. We recognise that to administer any broadcast legislation, you will have to have an independent committee that would be seen as clear and impartial for it to have any credibility so that when they make decisions [these] will be widely accepted by the public.”

In other words no investigation was allowed by the “subject minister” who had to do exactly what the ACB told him to do in the case of a violation by any station.

Now I come to your Sunday, July 10 issue of statements made by Mr Jagdeo under the caption ‘Jagdeo still considering suspension.’ It is very troubling, since nowhere in the law does it say that he can, to quote your newspaper, “decide if he will go ahead with the ACB’s recommendation [or not].” He does not have that right; if the ACB says suspend, then he must suspend, if they say no he must not suspend. It’s been nearly a month and poor Sharma is still in limbo about what will happen to his licence. But apparently Mr Jagdeo likes that because it is a way to control people. All you have to do is look around to all of the people in this country who are “acting” to see that it cannot be an accident.
As far as the alleged contravention of the constitution by me is concerned, I was waiting for someone to answer that part and finally today, Friday 15, Mr Freddie Kissoon did so and I am grateful for that.

As written on the Guyana broadcasters’ licences the conditions violate freedom of speech issues in a big way. As Freddie pointed out, it would be impossible for anyone not to offend someone when he makes a controversial public declaration in a plural society such as ours, so because private broadcasters have to purchase and pay annually for their licence these repressive freedom of speech violations are imposed on them.

These conditions were placed there in a certain context and for a specific period. It was just after the 2001 elections when to heal the massive rift (which Mr Jagdeo does understand still exists in this country) these provisions were put on the licence to effect healing, since from 1997 to 2001 there cannot be any doubt about what was going on in this country as a result of the marching and the ‘slow and mo’ fiah.’ So the ACB was never intended to last more than a few months. It has lasted 10 years since Mr Jagdeo wants it so, because it works in his favour since the licence acts as an effective muzzle on the broadcast media which does not apply to the print media. This is a constitutional violation since it offends equality of treatment.

As far as the constitutional breaches perpetrated by me according to Mr Jagdeo are concerned, they pale into insignificance when compared to his daily violation of the fundamental human rights in our constitution; his maintaining the monopoly of radio is one, and every day the freedom of speech rights of every single citizen in this country are violated as a result of this. Denying the right of the opposition access to the state media is also a fundamental violation to freedom of speech; this is not just my opinion, since in 1982 Judge Deyal Singh in the Rambachand case in Trinidad ruled that denying a member of the opposition in Parliament the right to speak on a state-owned media channel is a fundamental violation of rights. NCN is not owned by the PPP; it is owned by all of the people in this country and it is a violation of their civil and political rights to deny them access, especially when it is their taxes which is supporting it. Also our constitution speaks about equality – actually it implies it, and unlike Trinidad it does not spell it out clearly. However, it is my opinion that by receiving the massive subventions from the budget annually NCN is competing unfairly with private broadcasters and this offends any provision in the constitution which hints at equality of treatment. Our constitution requires the formation of a Procurement Commission, but Mr Jagdeo has steadfastly refused to put it in place. What he has in place is a National Procurement body, which to the best of my knowledge contains not one member of the opposition. The Human Rights Commission is also not in place and this is also a constitutional violation. There are numerous other examples which the lack of space does not allow me to elaborate on, but the public should look into these violations of our constitution themselves; they should make up their minds whether it is the party or the president they want running this country.

In a plural society such as this is there has to be some understanding of the complexities of the situation, and that it is impossible to have prior censorship enshrined in the licences of broadcasters to be fair and balanced and not to offend, etc. The different religions in this country have completely different ways to god, so given these fundamental differences how could it be possible for our religious leaders to preach what their beliefs stand for if they are constrained by not annoying each other?

As far as TBN being on the air illegally is concerned, it is not true; I had a contract with Freddie Sancharra to use that channel for which I paid him a monthly fee and the licence fee as well. It came about this way:

One day some time in 2000 before the 2001 licensing regime was put in place by Prime Minister Hinds, I was in Mr Jagdeo’s office and I told him that I had been approached by a Christian organisation – TBN – which wanted to establish a satellite-delivered broadcast here, that there would be no local content, just what was coming from satellite and I wanted to get a licence for them; his answer was no, since if he did that then the Hindus and the Muslims would also want a channel.

I wanted to avoid embarrassment to Mr Jagdeo who was a friend at that time, since everyone will remember that he opened my Quamina Street studio in 1999, but I needed the money badly since I had just bought the building in Quamina Street, and the PSU strike had left me several months in arrears of payments at the bank. I decided therefore to do the deal with Freddie Sancharra, ie to rent his channel for TBN; it got everybody off the hook, Freddie got some badly needed cash to help him out since he was not well, TBN got their channel and Mr .Jagdeo did not have to create a new channel for Christians alone.

At that time apart from Mr Jagdeo’s determination about religions not having their own channel, there was no law restricting me from doing what I did, and frankly I completely disagreed with him; every religion which wants to have a TV station should be allowed to do so, since it does not affect the advertising marketplace and in fact they should not be required to pay an annual broadcast fee since they would be non-profit organisations. Just around three years ago Sir Fenton Ramsahoye secured a radio licence for the Trinidadian equivalent of our Maha Sabha.
I think that Freddie’s article captured in the Kaieteur News of July 15, 2011 the situation nicely, and I will end here.

Yours faithfully,
Tony Vieira

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