The International Press Institute (IPI) has called on the Guyana Government to review all outstanding broadcast licence applications, including those lodged before the Broadcast Act took effect, and to ensure the fair distribution of state advertising.
The organisation’s call was contained in a report compiled following a visit by an IPI team in April and released yesterday. In April, the IPI together with its strategic partner, the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM), conducted a three-week mission to six Caribbean countries: Antigua and Barbuda, Guyana, Suriname, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, and Curaçao.
The mission took place under the umbrella of IPI’s flagship campaign to repeal criminal defamation in the Caribbean and was designed to follow-up on the success of IPI’s first mission to the region, in June 2012. The aim of IPI’s campaign is to encourage government officials in the Caribbean to repeal outdated laws that criminally punish defamation, which includes, for IPI’s purposes, libel, seditious libel, contempt of authority, and insult, both of individuals and of the state itself.
In this regard, in its recommendations, the IPI called on government to reform the Criminal Law (Offences) Act to remove all references to libel or defamation, primarily Sections 110 – 144 and also reform the Criminal Law (Offences) Act to remove references to seditious libel, found in Section 321.
Among the recommendations for government, the IPI called on government to immediately begin a review of all outstanding broadcast licence applications, including those filed before the Broadcast Act took effect. The IPI, during its visit here, had heard many complaints about how licences were granted to a select few in 2011 just shortly before the general elections, while established media houses like Stabroek News, Kaieteur News and Capitol News were ignored.
The IPI also called on government to ensure that the granting of any new television and radio licences is done transparently and under the guidance of an independent Broadcast Authority.
Further, the body said that government should ensure that state advertising is distributed fairly and without regard for the particular editorial stance of a newspaper. It also called for the transformation of any state media into public media that serve the interests of all Guyanese, not just those of the government currently in power as well as the ending the alleged use of state media to intimidate or harass the private press or those who disagree with the government’s positions or actions.
Furthermore, the IPI said government should ensure the independence of the Office of the Freedom of Information Commissioner, and provide this person with the necessary resources to do his job effectively; reform the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act to remove or specify exemptions involving the Office of the President, in line with international standards and investigate thoroughly and without delay instances of violence against the press or media installations.
In recommendations for the media, the IPI urged the press to focus on producing content that is balanced and free of political bias; take care not to insert a political slant during the editorial process and to invest in training to improve the quality of reporting and of investigative reporting in particular.
It called for the Guyana Press Association (GPA) to be strengthened as a vessel for defending journalists’ rights and safeguarding ethical standards. The media should consider the creation of a sustainable self-regulatory body that can effectively handle citizen complaints regarding the media, the report said, while adding that state media reporters should be allowed to become members of the GPA and to take advantage of any training programmes offered by the GPA or other organisations.
Further, the report urged reporters to refrain from “envelope journalism,” e.g., taking payment for attending press conferences or other news’ gathering meetings.
In its report, the IPI said that it presented its view to leading government officials that criminal defamation laws are an affront to the values of democratic society and should be repealed. “Guyanese officials generally agreed with IPI, but many expressed concerns about a lack of media responsibility in the country,” the report said.
It noted that in a meeting with IPI delegates, Attorney-General Anil Nandlall expressly agreed that journalists “should not go to jail for practising their craft,” and pledged to prepare a memo on the issue for the country’s cabinet. According to IPI, Nandlall stated: “I cannot see the utility of having something in the law that is not used,” and added that no Guyanese journalist had been charged with criminal libel in recent times.
The report said that Nandlall urged IPI to emphasise the importance of media ethics. “The media is one of the most powerful organisations in the world,” he noted, “and with that power comes a commensurate responsibility.” Nandlall stressed in particular that in Guyana, which he described as a “society with underlying tensions,” journalists must be aware of their context, the report said.
The report said Prime Minister Samuel Hinds was more explicit in his criticism of the media, asserting that the Guyanese independent press engages in “premeditated distortion” that “maximises the social problems in our society.”
It said that when IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie first expressed IPI’s opinion about criminal defamation, the prime minister commented, “Jail would be a good place for a lot of publishers and editors to be.” The IPI said however, the prime minister later appeared more open to the idea of repealing criminal defamation, with the understanding that the media could still be held liable in civil suits. The report said McKenzie told the prime minister that she understood that there were widespread frustrations and concerns about perceived media irresponsibility in Guyana but argued, “having a vibrant media is part of a democracy—what is our alternative?”
IPI also met Gail Teixeira, adviser on governance to President Donald Ramotar and she informed IPI that while she could not make any specific promises, the government was “not opposed to changing it [criminal libel law].” Like other political figures, Teixeira welcomed IPI’s commitment to providing journalism training in Guyana, stating, “We don’t want everyone to love the government, we just want fair and accurate reporting.” The report said that the opposition was notably more supportive of repealing criminal libel.
“While we would have liked a more concrete commitment from the Guyanese government on the repeal of criminal defamation and though we anticipate that the process of repeal will take some time, I am satisfied that the country’s top officials generally agreed with our position,” McKenzie said.
In relation to broadcasting licences, the IPI said the media raised concerns of “alleged” government discrimination in the awarding of radio and television licences in the country.
The IPI noted that the Guyanese government, until 2011, exercised a complete radio monopoly, while also controlling the majority of the country’s television stations and attempts to diversify the sector have been consistently stonewalled. It pointed out that some independent media outlets—including television broadcasters Capitol News and Prime News and print media Stabroek News and Kaieteur News—have had their broadcast applications denied or ignored, in some cases for more than 20 years.
The report noted that Enrico Woolford, managing editor of Capitol News, explained to IPI that he had applied for a radio licence in October 1997 but in 16 years had yet to even receive a response. Julia Johnson, founder of Prime News, first applied for a television broadcasting licence in 2001 and was similarly denied and currently rents space on a private channel to broadcast nightly news.
Stabroek News submitted the first of its many radio-licence applications in April 1993—all of which have gone unacknowledged by the authorities. “Editors of these media accuse the government of purposely denying them broadcasting rights because of their perceived political position and their sometimes critical reporting on government issues. Indeed, these media are frequently referred to by government officials as the ‘opposition press,’” the report said.
It recounted that in 2003, Woolford, Johnson, and other applicants were informed by authorities that the National Frequency Management Board would issue no new television or radio licences until the enactment of new broadcasting legislation. This agreement was made official by a written agreement, made public on May 6, 2003, between then-president Bharrat Jagdeo and then-opposition-leader Robert Corbin.
Nearly nine years later, in 2011, the National Assembly finally passed the Broadcast Act, which was intended to open up the spectrum and award licences on a merit basis. The Act formally took effect in September 2012 with the constitution of the National Broadcast Authority. However, in November 2011, Jagdeo had already unilaterally ended the government’s radio monopoly by awarding 22 radio licences to recipients, who remained secret until the government was forced to disclose their names in March 2012 one month prior to IPI’s arrival in Guyana.
The report said that according to court documents obtained by IPI, 15 of the 22 licences were awarded to three companies—Telecor and Cultural Broadcasting Inc, New Guyana Co Ltd, and Radio Guyana Inc—whose owners and boards are dotted with family members and friends of the former president and government ministers.
“For example, reports indicate that Telecor’s board includes Jagdeo’s niece, Kamini Persaud, while Radio Guyana’s owner, Ranjisinghi Ramroop, has been described in the media as Jagdeo’s best friend. Two further licenses were issued to individuals said to be strong supporters of the PPP. None were granted to the so-called opposition media and all were issued apparently in spite of the 2003 agreement…,” the report said. “It was also revealed that the government had issued one broadcast licence each to Quark Communications and ENetworks, both of which are owned, again, by individuals with close connections to the former president,” it added.
The report noted that the revelation of the licence recipients unleashed a firestorm, with media and political opposition accusing the government of disrespecting both the 2003 agreement and the idea that licence deliberations would be open and independent.
But despite a lawsuit and protests, the government has appeared unmoved by the criticisms. “The government’s position has not been helped by the fact that the Broadcast Authority, whose members are appointed by the president, is comprised almost exclusively of individuals with links to the ruling party, none of whom apparently have any experience in the broadcasting sector,” the report said.
It noted that in May 2013, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression; the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media; the OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression; and the ACHPR Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information released a joint statement on digital broadcasting rights in which they reiterated: “The process for allocating broadcasting licenses should be strictly regulated by law and be guided by clear, objective, transparent and democratic criteria. This includes the need for the legal framework to be sufficiently clear to prevent arbitrary actions, including actions based on the editorial line of a broadcaster, to require decisions to be justified and published, and to allow for judicial review of decisions.”
In IPI’s view, these criteria have not been observed in Guyana, the report said. “While IPI was previously aware of allegations that broadcast licences have been unfairly distributed in Guyana, our visit revealed the full depth and gravity of this issue,” McKenzie stated after the mission. “It is unthinkable that the licence applications of certain media have been delayed or ignored for nearly two decades. We call upon the newly constituted Broadcast Authority to immediately undertake a speedy and fair review of any outstanding licence applications and to ensure that all applications are subject to independent review.
“It is highly unusual that a sitting president should also be his or her country’s information minister, and we urge Guyana to end this practice so as to reduce the likelihood of conflicts of interest in dealing with the media,” McKenzie added.
Meanwhile, in relation to state ads, the report said that an IPI review of state advertising patterns in Guyana reveals extreme inequalities in the way such advertising is distributed. It said that, the state-owned Chronicle and the PPP-affiliated Mirror receive more than four times as much state advertising space as the so-called “opposition” papers Stabroek News and Kaieteur News.
“As shown, these figures do not correlate with circulation numbers: the Chronicle has (according to its own estimate) one-half of Kaieteur News’s readership, yet receives on average 12 times as much state advertising. Such data certainly lend weight to accusations of deliberate discrimination in the distribution of official advertising, in order to punish certain newspapers for expressing their opinions,” the report said.