We extend a hearty welcome to the delegates of the Caribbean Broadcasting Union’s 44th Annual General Assembly and wish them the most fruitful of deliberations in Georgetown.
Top of the agenda is the transition from analogue broadcasting to the digital format and it is to be hoped that all local broadcasters will make maximum use of the expertise available to prepare themselves for the eventual changeover.
Many other matters will undoubtedly engage the delegates. Foremost among these will be the quality and cost of indigenous programming. Formed in 1970 after a call by regional leaders to employ the broadcasting medium as a means of propelling integration, the CBU has had its work cut out for it. Satellite signals from the behemoths have smothered the ability of the CBU to fulfill the expectation that it can be a cementing presence in the integration firmament. In its present configuration, it is signally unable to repel the bewildering array of cable programming and the usual fare from established broadcasters like CNN. In the late hours at night the average Guyanese without access to cable and programing from the CBU might have to be contented with the offerings of China Central Television (CCTV) which has been established here by an agreement through one of CBU’s affiliates here, state broadcaster NCN. CCTV should certainly be considered as part of the diversified programming available to the Caribbean but should be seen for what it is – reflecting the views and outlook of Beijing. Where CBU members are unable to produce their own material or share the offerings of other stations they will have no choice but to fall back on CCTV and others, oftentimes imposed by the political directorate.
The challenge to the CBU is to harness the wondrous talent that is available to the region across all disciplines: broadcasting, the arts, education and the political life to present programmes that resonate with the people and their daily lives. In broadcasting there is a rich legacy. Our own Guyanese, the late Olga Lopes-Seale who is revered for her work in the field of broadcasting across borders stands out as an example among many. Others like the ever green Ron Robinson continue to make contributions and it’s for the CBU members to meld these talents into a part of the Caribbean tapestry. Of course, good programming and quality news feed require financing and this is one of the inherent weaknesses of the sprawling region in gathering itself from The Bahamas in the north to Suriname in the south.
Given the increasing threat of encroachment of signals from all regions of the Americas, China and other areas, the question remains how individual stations in modest economies can sustain an effort to have more local and regional programming inserted into their line-ups. The harsh truth is that there will be no money available from international agencies or lenders. When the BBC decided to discontinue its longstanding and well-received Caribbean Report because of costs it was a dire signal to the region but also a harbinger of the difficult road ahead.
Caricom and Caribbean governments will have to accept that the only way in which regional programming can make an impact and become a unifying force is if the investment is made. Regional programming could easily become the means through which large sections of the post-independence Caribbean begin to identify with what is West Indian or to inhabit a part of the Caribbean Sea. The Carifesta underway in Suriname is a prime example of what CBU member stations could excel at and repackage for all their member stations. How much of what is presented in Paramaribo will actually be seen across the region today and tomorrow?
One hopes, that though individual stations are burdened with their own difficulties, that the CBU could find a way to put together a proposal to the reforming Caricom and other regional bodies on honing a bigger voice which can be picked up throughout the region and other parts and come to represent the ethos of the Caribbean. Forty-three years after its formation, the CBU is still to really grapple with this.
The strength of the CBU and its ability to deliver on this challenge is dependent in part on mobilising other members. Where in regional states that possibility is inhibited, it retards the CBU from meeting its full potential. The CBU delegates present today should be aware that the Guyana Government has introduced broadcasting legislation which has serious implications for the broadcasters’ freedom of expression. The political control of the Authority that has been established to administer the act is also a significant problem. One of its first acts was to massively increase the licence fee charged to broadcasters. This has been seen widely as an attempt to limit the size of the field and keep out those who have not found favour with the administration. There are many other defects in the act and it is hoped that the CBU delegates can give local broadcasters a hearing.
For many years the PPP government prevented an expansion of the broadcasting spectrum by refusing to assign new licences until certain legislative reforms were in place. Yet, in the same month of the 2011 general election, the Guyana Government awarded licences in the most grotesque and opaque manner to a handful of friends of the administration and others. There was no explanation for the violation of the agreement for law reforms to be in place first or as to the bona fides of the awardees. The allocations were made for purely political reasons while ignoring the longstanding applications of others.
In essence, the government has violated media freedoms and obligations by operating in this blatantly partisan manner and ignoring the legitimate expectations of other applicants to be properly considered. The CBU cannot afford to be oblivious to this problem as it poses a potential threat to existing stations and those who may wish to become members of the CBU. The CBU must find a way to assert itself on these matters or else its task to develop a Caribbean voice becomes even more elusive.
Among the CBU’s objectives are to support international agreements relating to all aspects of broadcasting and to consolidate common positions on public issues affecting the welfare of its members. These are eminently suitable avenues for the CBU to reflect interest in the Guyana situation.
We wish the assembly all success.