Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo yesterday tabled proposed amendments to the broadcast legislation that would require all radio and television broadcasters to apply for licences within 30 days of the changes coming into force or face immediate closure of their operations.
Once enacted, the Broadcast (Amendment) Bill 2017 would also see the classification of all broadcasting operations into “commercial,” “non-commercial” or “community” services, the establishment of broadcasting zones across the country, and a mandatory requirement that all stations air “public service programmes” for up to 60 minutes a day, free of cost, between 6 am and 10 pm. The bill defines such broadcasts as “programmes produced for the purpose of informing and educating the public, and promoting policies and activities of the Government that benefit the public as a whole.”
With the requirement that all broadcasters, licensed and unlicensed, apply for licences within 30 days of the commencement of the amended law, the bill could go some way towards fulfilling Nagamootoo’s previous promise to re-examine and possibly revoke licences controversially granted under the Bharrat Jagdeo-led PPP/C administration in 2011, prior to the broadcast law coming into force.
In addition, those persons or companies who had pending applications before the commencement of the new law will now have to reapply and any fees already paid will now form part of the new schedule of fees.
The bill says that broadcasters who fail to apply for licensing or are rejected by the broadcast authority shall immediately halt operations or they would be guilty of an offence, for which they could face a one-year prison term and a fine of $1 million. It says too that “all machinery and equipment used, or which can be used, for broadcasting and owned by or in the possession of the person concerned is liable to be forfeited; but property not owned by such person shall not be forfeited unless the court is satisfied that the owner of the property knew or ought to have, with reasonable diligence, known that the person convicted had no licence to carry out broadcasting service.”
For renewal of their licences, the bill also says, operators would have to pay the broadcast authority an annual fee, which is either “the base fee, which is the fee for each zone for which the applicant is licensed to serve,” or “the sum equivalent to such percentage equivalent to the gross revenue of the preceding year.”
Licensees would also have to submit fully audited accounts for the preceding financial year on or before 30th June of each year.
Classes and zones
The bill proposes that a television or radio broadcasting service shall be operated as either a “commercial,” “non-commercial” or “community” class service. It explains that a licence for a commercial class service shall be granted to an applicant whose gross revenue is expected to be at least 80% of the income through the sale of airtime, subscription, advertisement or a combination of the three. A licence for a non-commercial class service would be granted where the applicant is solely funded by an organisation or donors, while a licence for a community class service would be granted to a trust, managed and controlled by a Board elected from among members of the community in the geographic area to be served. A community class service, it is noted, would have to offer programming that reflects the “cultural, religious, language and demographic needs” of the people in the community and would have to invest any surplus funds into the development of community broadcasting.
The bill adds that any company or trust that operates a commercial class broadcasting service cannot be licensed to operate a community class service.
The broadcasting zones, as outlined in the bill, would be comprised of one primary zone, four secondary zones and three tertiary zones.
The primary zone covers Georgetown, Region Three up to the Essequibo River, all of Region Four and Region Five east of Region Four to the Abary River.
Among the secondary zones, Zone 1 would cover all of Region One, all of Region Two and the Essequibo Islands being part of Region Three; Zone 2 would cover all of Bartica; Zone 3 would cover all of Region Six, including New Amsterdam and part of Region Five west of New Amsterdam to the Abary River; and Zone 4 would cover all of Region 10, including Linden and the section of the Berbice River that falls within the region.
The three tertiary zones, meanwhile, would comprise Zone 1, covering all of Region Nine, including Lethem; Zone 2, covering all of Region Eight, including Mahdia; and Zone 3, covering Region Seven but not including Bartica.
The bill provides that a community class broadcasting service could be provided in any zone, except the primary zone, with a transmission radius of not more than five miles or a distance specified in its licence.
Meanwhile, also proposed among the amendments is the mandatory broadcast of public service programmes, including addresses to the nation by the President and emergency notices or disaster warnings issued by the Civil Defence Commission, the police, fire service, the health ministry or any other authorised agency.
If the bill is enacted in its present form, every broadcaster would have to air public service programmes for a total of up to 60 minutes per day, between 6am and 10 pm, free of cost.
It further provides that broadcasters could designate separate time slots to air or repeat any public announcement which is urgent and of public importance, but all would be required to submit to the broadcast authority fixed schedules or a rotation of time slots they intend for the airing of public service programmes. Additionally, the broadcast authority would be empowered under the law to direct a station to adjust or vary submitted schedules for public service programmes to ensure the distribution is spread across various time slots. Further, the broadcast authority would also have the power to direct any operator to broadcast emergency notices or disaster warnings during peak or prime time hours or during a regular broadcast programme, with consideration to “the nature of the emergency” and “regard for public safety.”
The bill does include a provision for a broadcaster to file a complaint to the broadcast authority within 24 hours of any request to broadcast a programme free of cost if it believes that it is not a public service broadcast. In such cases, the authority is mandated to investigate and issue a ruling. Additionally, if broadcasters arbitrarily refuse to broadcast any such announcements without making a formal complaint, they would be deemed to have committed an offence.
The bill also places a prohibition on the broadcasting of hate speech, racial incitement or terror threats.
Additionally, it allows for broadcasting agencies that can provide evidence of an agreement with international agencies to file a complaint with the broadcast authority, “where another broadcasting agency is broadcasting, without such as agreement, the same channel or programme as part of that other broadcasting agency’s local service.”
The bill would also see the revocation of the 2014 broadcasting regulations.