Justice Chang’s ruling on the licence fee did not address the fundamental issues

Dear Editor,

I refer to the front page headline of the Kaieteur News on Saturday May 10th 2014 which declared that `CJ Chang cancels $2.5 million TV licence fee’. He did no such thing!

This ruling is typical of Justice Chang’s rulings, which are now becoming notorious for not addressing the fundamental issues of the matter before him.

Justice Chang was asked to rule that the annual $2.5 million broadcast fee was unconscionable in view of the fact that it had the capacity to remove the smaller broadcasters from the air, since most of them are not making the kind of money to warrant such a large fee, and in fact it would be impossible given the small advertising marketplace of Guyana and the amount of stations on the air.

He was presented with evidence and arguments that the smaller broadcasters are making no money at present, he was also presented with evidence and argument that where there was just the National Frequency Management Unit (NFMU) fee, there will now be an additional fee of $2.5 million or 3.5 % of gross income whichever is greater representing a massive 1000% increase in total fees.

3.5 % of gross income or $2.5 million assumes that the broadcasters are earning in the vicinity of $71.4 million a year. This is an impossibility, if most of them are earning $30 million in any year it would be a miracle. And if they are in New Amsterdam, Linden or Lethem it would be even more miraculous. As such this massive increase in fees has the potential, and I believe the intention, to establish monopolies and oligarchies and force the smaller operators out of business, thereby violating the citizens of Guyana’s fundamental right to free speech.

I would like to remind your readers, Editor, that when a small broadcaster is removed from the air through these irresponsible or deliberately offensive fees, not only is his freedom of speech violated, but the rights of all of those who would like to hear the views of the programmes his channel airs, even if it conflicts with theirs, are also violated.

To give an example as to how far down the rabbit’s hole we have gone in this country, the Minister of Education told us last week in the newspaper that Channel 28’s Ramroop is now broadcasting his signal through links to a satellite which combines his signal with that of the Learning Channel, and that makes the cost of up-linking the Learning Channel cheaper. We are now forced to ask by how much? And since these two signals are now so inextricably linked, we don’t know how much of the uplink cost is being born by him and how much is being borne by the taxpayers, also in all the locations where the Learning Channel is operating we must know if Ramroop gets special concessions to carry his broadcast on their assets e.g. towers, buildings, security etc. and if he does then what is that cost to him? The opposition must demand an answer. However it’s difficult to demand answers when you do not really understand the problem.

These alliances given the political nature of the situation can make the Learning Channel substantially more expensive than if they allowed the Ministry of Education [MOE] to do it themselves. We must know, since the best friend of Jagdeo and Jagdeo himself can be setting up to have countrywide, biased political broadcasting, through satellite connections which are developing even as the Learning Channel develops for Ramroop’s benefit, creating an uneven, unconstitutional playing field between him and his broadcasting competitors. This was probably the reason why Ramroop magically produced a satellite uplink, when in fact I did not sell him one and since no new licences were to be issued before the formation of the Broadcasting Authority in 2012, he could not possibly have had the need for a satellite uplink facility prior to the establishment of the Broadcast authority; and unless I am misinformed, GT&T was the only entity in this country which could legally, according to their monopoly, uplink this signal for the Learning Channel. [Incidentally Editor there is no such thing as a teleport existing on this planet at this time and the Minister of Education should be told. It’s called an uplink to satellite facility] Also, only GT&T had the technical capability to operate an uplink to satellite at the time that the Learning Channel was launched. Ramroop certainly had no experience at doing it, so the question remains unanswered, what did Ramroop need an uplink for in 2011 for? Since he had one ready, which he did not need, when the Learning Channel required it, did the NFMU authorise it? When and how did that happen?

So at this time we have in front of our face, a real attempt to monopolise broadcasting on political criteria only, and no one has really questioned it.

It is against this background that we have to put CJ Chang’s ruling into context, he did not address the inequity or the constitutional illegality of the $2.5 million fee. The CJ only ruled on an insignificant point regarding the timing and the cabinet being involved in the imposition of the licence fee which can easily be corrected by the Broadcast Authority, and not the fundamental violations of free speech and natural justice on which he was asked to rule, and in fact leaves the broadcasters having to pay the fee from 2014 onwards.

There is no question now that we have to take this higher and appeal it all the way to the CCJ if necessary, and all right thinking Guyanese must support their broadcasters.

Yours faithfully,

Tony Vieira

 

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