At press time this morning the National Assembly was involved in fierce debate on the Broadcast (Amend-ment) Bill 2017 with PM Moses Nagamootoo defending a controversial provision for all broadcasters to carry one hour of public service programmes each day.
Nagamootoo in introducing the bill declared to the House that it does not infringe on press freedoms but rather lends clarity and certainty to the wide and sweeping powers granted the Guyana National Broadcasting Authority (GNBA) by the 2011 Broadcast Act. A number of MPs were scheduled to speak this morning and another session of Parliament has been convened for this afternoon to ensure that the debate is brought to conclusion.
Referring to the 2011 Act as the Jagdeo Act, Nagamootoo argued that it not only granted wide and sweeping powers to GNBA to amend conditions for the issuing, suspension and revocation of licences but that it also granted powers to demand uncapped amounts of time for Public Service Broadcasts.
He stressed that his government through the tabled amendments would be “freeing up broadcasters from being held hostage” and having to give free broadcasting time of unknown amounts.
Instead the mandatory requirement is 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, public service programmes are those 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. It further explains that they will include addresses to the nation by the President and emergency notices or disaster warnings issued by the Civil Defence Com-mission, the police, fire service, the health ministry or any other authorised agency.
Addresses to the nation by the President is seen by press freedom watchers to be a particular problem.
The mandatory broadcast of this content has been a major issue of concern for Media Owners and Operators, who say they were not consulted on the contents of the bill. According to the owner and operators this requirement represented an “infringement on their freedom to determine broadcast content.”
In a letter to Nagamootoo, representatives from Freedom Radio, CNS TV 6, Channel 72, NTN TV/Radio, TVG 28/89.5 FM, MBC Channel 93, Little Rock Television (LRTV) and MTV called for yesterday’s debate to be delayed until such time as they were granted an audience with him to discuss their concerns.
Though the PM’s office acknowledged receipt of the letter to the media the operators received no response and Nagamootoo himself refused to address the issue. Approached by Stabroek News in the corridors of Parliament, yesterday, Nagamootoo said he had “no comment” to make in response to the broadcasters’ request.
He later however took time during his presentation to the House to address the issue.
The PM quoted Section 18 of the 2011 act which said that the GNBA could “require licensees to carry information on any programmes issued by the Civil Defence Commission, the Guyana Police Force, Guyana Fire Service and or health services, and certain other programmes as public information deemed appropriate and necessary in terms of national security, emergency and disaster as a public service at no cost.”
Also provided for under the act was a requirement that “licensees carry a certain percentage of public service broadcast or development support broadcast as public information deems appropriate as a public service at no cost.”
Nagamootoo stressed that this second provision “could’ve been any amount of time as decided by the government” , an oversight which led to uncertainty.
“We gave a specific time which is …of tremendous benefit to all operators,” he told the House.