While voicing their concerns, the owners of several privately-owned radio and television stations have called for the deferral of the debate and passage of a recently-tabled bill to update the broadcast legislation until meaningful consultations are held.
Stabroek News was informed that the owners and operators were invited to meet with a team from the opposition People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) on Monday, so that they could be informed about concerns that it had with the bill, Broadcast (Amendment) Bill 2017.
Following this meeting, a press statement was issued by Media Owners and Operators in which they addressed concerns over the bill, including whether it would violate constitutional rights.
“The primary concerns were the negative impact it could have on sustainability of operations with regard to the licensing fee structure, the imposition on property and the infringement on the freedom to determine the broadcast content,” the operators said in the statement, which did not identify any of its members.
They also noted that they had not been consulted on the content of the bill and believe that its impact on freedom, livelihood and jobs compels “the decency of having consultations,” with the allowance for inputs.
Anand Persaud of the National Television Network (NTN), confirmed to Stabroek News that he was one of several owners who attended the meeting. Other stations which were reportedly represented were SafeTV Channel 2, Multi-Technology Vision Inc (MTV) Channel 65, Little Rock Television Station, CNS Channel 6 and Hit and Jams Television.
According to Persaud, government should have consulted with broadcasters before attempting to pass the bill.
“The days where governments unilaterally make and pass laws are over,” he stressed, while adding that the measures being proposed are draconian.
According to the statement and owners with whom Stabroek News spoke, there are two areas of major contention. The first of these is the 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.
According to the bill, the mandatory broadcast of public service programmes will include 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.
Though 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,” Persaud contends that it is simply not a clear enough definition.
“They did not specify what constitutes a Public Service Announcement (PSA) and as a law abiding citizen who has regularly aired all addresses to the nation and similar PSAs, I will continue to do so but I cannot have the government infringing on my right as a broadcaster and telling me what to broadcast and when. It would be like asking a private newspaper to reserve a 10×10 space every once in a while to advertise the Chronicle,” he explained.
Savitri Singh, who along with her husband CN Sharma, operates CNS Channel 6 also expressed concerns about this requirement.
“It must be realised that private stations are not subsidised like NCN. We have to make sure that the broadcast is profitable. We are already faced with heavy fees for licensing so to be profitable we try to get in as much programming as possible. The period they have identified includes our most profitable time, prime time,” she explained.
According to Singh, the bill does not clarify whether the government will wish to use this time every day, every week or once in a while and it is concerning that it would be requested at all much less made mandatory.
Another amendment which concerns Persaud is the requirement that all radio and television broadcasters apply for licences within 30 days of the changes coming into force or face immediate closure of their operations.
If passed the bill will require in part 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. The bill also says that broadcasters who fail to apply for licences 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, a fine of $1 million and the forfeiture of all their equipment.
Persaud equated this measure to a revocation of his licence. “I have applied for TV and radio licences and have been paying both frequency and licensing fees for years in what I was led to believe was a legitimate process. But to now say that after a certain date I would have to reapply for a licence means that you are revoking my licence,” he stressed.
Persaud made clear that if the bill is passed, he is prepared to move to the courts and intends to advocate against its implementation at every level, including regionally and internationally.
“I hope the international community, the Private Sector Commission, chambers of commerce and GMSA are paying attention,” he said.
However, before these measure are utilized, the private radio and TV group has expressed its intention to write to Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, who tabled the bill, seeking an audience so that its concerns can be made known. “It is hoping in the interest of democracy and freedom of expression, the authorities would understand the magnitude of the impact the Bill in its current form could have on the future of television and radio broadcasting in Guyana. As such, the desire is for a Bill that can be reached through consensus,” it added in its statement.
Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo last Friday said the changes proposed in the bill were a threat to press freedom.
“If we allow this bill to succeed, it would be the beginning of the end of press freedom in Guyana and so I would urge people in this country to read the bill,” he told a news conference, while arguing that the provision could force broadcasters to air government propaganda free of cost.
He also voiced concern about the requirement that broadcasters reapply for licensing. “It is a direct threat to what we have now, the people who are broadcasting at this point in time,” he said, while adding that he has no doubt that the government would use “political criteria to make that determination.”