Twenty years since first application… Stabroek News still to be granted radio licence

April 8th, 2013 marked the 20th anniversary of Stabroek News’ first application for a radio licence and to date it has not been successful even though former president Bharrat Jagdeo’s administration handed out a clutch of licences in November 2011 to persons deemed close to him and his administration.

Stabroek News, which was established in 1986, first submitted an application for a radio licence on April 8, 1993 to the National Frequency Management Unit (NFMU). Then Co-ordinator of the Unit, Keith Griffith, had replied on April 8, 1993 acknowledging the application and asking for the submission of the application in triplicate, which was subsequently done, and saying that the application would be receiving attention and that Stabroek News’ parent company Guyana Publications Limited (GPL) would be “advised accordingly”.

There was no further communication from the NFMU as it appeared by then that the PPP/C government had taken a decision that the radio spectrum would not be opened even though it had commissioned a report from Guyanese media expert, Rafiq Khan, which had addressed matters like radio licensing.

The 1993 application by GPL had been accompanied by a commitment by a Trinidad media group to assist in the establishing of the radio station and the training of local staff.

From 1993 onwards, the various PPP/C governments made positive noises about considering opening up the broadcast spectrum and licences were submitted to the NFMU by other persons during this period. However, nothing changed and the state maintained its grip on radio.

There was no major development on the matter until May, 2001 when the Radio Monopoly and Non-Partisan Boards Committee was established as a result of the dialogue that had begun in April that year between former president Jagdeo and the then opposition leader and former president, the late Desmond Hoyte. This dialogue process was to lead to the establishment of a broadcast authority which would then issue licences but until then both leaders agreed that no new licences would be issued.

There was eventually a stalemate between the two sides over the proposed broadcast authority bill and the entire process stalled.

The next major development would have been around January 2010 when the government and the NFMU signalled out of the blue that it would be reviewing radio licence applications and inviting those who had previously submitted to resubmit. The original applicants were written to by the NFMU and asked to reapply. Stabroek News tendered a new application on July 23, 2010. There was no further word from the NFMU from that point onwards though Stabroek News attempted to find out from it how the process was coming along.

Stabroek News Editor-in-Chief Anand Persaud said that Guyana Publications Inc’s experience with the PPP/C as exemplified in the two applications was evidence of its unwillingness to deal fairly with independent media that it was unable to direct. Persaud said it was clear that PPP/C was completely uncomfortable with independent radio as it was worried that its constituents would have greater access to professional reporting and diverse opinions. This is why it kept its stranglehold on radio.

Persaud said this PPP/C policy did not change under Jagdeo and what the former president did shortly before demitting office in 2011 was to favour those close to him and the government. Persaud said by 2010 when the NFMU signalled that it would entertain new applications from previous applicants this was only cover for what Jagdeo had decided. Jagdeo, he noted, had also broken a solemn commitment not to issue new licences until the broadcast authority was in place.

Persaud said the process by which radio licences and frequencies were distributed in 2011 was an abomination that stands as a stark indictment of the PPP and its government and does not diminish by an iota the cloying grip that the government has on the broadcast sector. The Editor-in-Chief added that GPI’s experience with the radio licence applications was akin to the attempt by the Jagdeo administration to shut it down in 2006 by withdrawing advertising only to reverse the ban 17 months later so that state advertisements could begin going to the Guyana Times. Persaud noted that Guyana Times’s parent group was one of those favoured with a radio licence under controversial circumstances by the Jagdeo administration.

The opaque handling of the radio licences, Persaud said, has further tarnished the PPP as it relates to press freedom and the only way in which the situation could be retrieved was a cancellation of the licensing and the fair review of all existing applications.

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