An unnecessary media quarrel

Former President Bharrat Jagdeo and the PPP/C’s pontifications about the need for a free and open media must have elicited if not the vast hilarity coming from his detractors at the very least a timid smile from even his ardent supporters.  After solemn promises of various sorts not to issue broadcasting licences, in the twilight of his rule the former president more or less secretly distributed a number of such instruments, mainly to the supporters of his party.  Of course his action was understandable, for by the time he was leaving office, but for media supremacy, the PPP/C was well on its way to establishing the political/ethnic dominance it so craved.

Given our Westminster-type system and the general nature of ethnic allegiances, Mr. Jagdeo’s party had already ensured political control, i.e. authority over both the executive and the legislature, and significant leverage over the judiciary. Civil society resistance was weak and manageable, but although the PPP/C controlled the state media and had a physical presence in the private media sector, it was not dominant. The independent media were having a significant impact and this had to be immediately rectified in the context of the party’s decreasing traditional base and the need for it to extend its ethnic support. In retrospect, the PPP/C’s analysis was fairly correct, for its loss of government was substantially the result of the independent media helping to weaken the more volatile sections of its ethnic alliance.

The present regime should take a lesson from what happened to its predecessor but in our political context it will probably not and its actions in relation to the passage of the Broadcast (Amendment) Bill 2017 show that it has definitely not so far. Coming after the PPP/C, my assessment is that this administration has many supporters and sympathizers in the media and my concern is that can I see no significant advantage in the course it has chosen on this issue. If only as a matter of form, it had acted upon its pre-election promises to be more open, transparent and consultative it would not have courted what appears to me an unnecessary quarrel! The conclusion to which I am forced is that the entrenched autocratic impulses of our political socialization, which view winning elections as merely facilitating the predisposed designs of the winner, won the day.

This regime does not sincerely believe in the consultations and democratic participation that so frequently litter its rhetoric. On the very day as the media proprietors were clamouring for more discussions, so too was the tobacco industry. Difficult and time consuming as the process sometimes is, the decision-making approach of modern political leadership should be premised on the right of the citizenry to participate to the limits of the political process. Participation does not portend agreement and, therefore, in the normal scheme of things, it should rarely be dependent upon someone else deciding whether one’s case is moral or sufficiently strong.

For example, I consider smoking to be detrimental to the individual, very costly to the nation and that all efforts should be made to curtail the habit. I do not believe that the substantial taxes paid by the tobacco company properly offset the cost of smoking and furthermore, if it is revenue governments are after, they are adept at devising numerous less detrimental ways of fleecing the populace. However, the tobacco lobby is a part of Guyana and should be given the widest possible latitude to make its case in private consultations and through its parliamentary representatives in all possible forums.

In the above context of openness and consultations I discern two major concerns of the media sector. The Broadcast (Amendment) Bill states that ‘Every person carrying on a broadcasting service immediately before the commencement of this Act for which a license had been previously issued shall apply within thirty days of the commencement of this Act for a license in accordance with the provisions of the Principal Act as amended by this Act for the continuation of the broadcasting service.’ This also goes for those broadcasting without license and the penalty for non-compliance is a fine of $1m and possible loss of equipment.

There is significant backing among APNU+AFC supporters for the licences of those who benefitted from Mr. Jagdeo’s largesse to be withdrawn and the above requirement is, therefore, particularly disquieting to those beneficiaries. Revocation and/or relicensing is not unknown: in the United States, relicensing is done on average about every eight years (https://jux.law/broadcast-station-license-period/). But while revocation may be possible, explicit notices with various levels of warning are required. If, as the government appears to suggest (SN: 07/08/2017), the intention at this stage is only to bring order to the sector, I am yet to fathom why proper stakeholder consultations would not have made this aspect of the quarrel unnecessary.

The second bone of contention should have been an immensely less controversial issue if the government had been above board and held proper consultations, for no self-respecting broadcaster would refuse to carry some public service programmes.  The Act defines public service programmes as ‘urgent and of national significance’ and requires 60 minutes per day free broadcasting between 6 am and 10 pm. The authority must also be presented with a schedule and can direct the broadcaster to adjust the schedule to its liking.

Again there is nothing unique here, at one point in the US, broadcast stations were required by the Federal Communications Commission to allocate about half an hour a week to public service announcements but now, according to the National Association of Broadcasters, there is no legal requirement but stations are guided by the code of conduct of the Association. On average in the US, a public service announcement is about 30 seconds long and stations air about 200 a week (http://www.psaresearch.com/caf1020.html).

In Barbados, broadcasters must also provide the government with substantial reserved time – 10 per cent of the total broadcasting time in any day – to carry public service announcements. But the law states clearly that ‘Government-reserved time or additional time made available pursuant to this regulation shall not be used for any matter which is likely or is intended to further the interest of any political party or to promote the election to any public office (including election to membership of the House of Assembly) of any individual’ (Barbados Broadcasting Regulations, 2000).’

Ideally, the licensing and revocation processes and particularly as it relates to political content, the nature of a public service programming, the time allocations, etc. needed an open public discussion for the media is vital to the entire democratic enterprise. However, at the very least, a modern government must be willing to meaningfully engage significant stakeholders when making important decisions concerning their wellbeing in any area of social existence. I chose the examples of the US and Barbados because they suggest the scope of what could have been used and perhaps should still be utilised, to bring some consensus in this important policy area. At the very least, one would have expected the Guyana Press Association to have been intricately involved in the drafting of the Broadcast (Amendment) Bill 2017.

henryjeffrey@yahoo.com

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