Following hours of debate, the government last evening used its majority in the National Assembly to pass contentious update to the broadcast legislation.
The Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2017, which will update the Broadcasting Act of 2011, was passed by a vote of 33 to 23.
Some private media operators had urged the government to defer the final readings of the bill so that there could be consultations on its content.
Members of the opposition PPP/C, who voted against the bill, remained convinced that several aspects of the amendments might prove to be unconstitutional.
The proposed amendments to the existing broadcast legislation will require in part all radio and television broadcasters to reapply 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 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, a fine of $1 million and the forfeiture of all their equipment.
It would also see 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 Govern-ment that benefit the public as a whole.”
PPP/C Member of Parliament (MP) Juan Edghill told the House in the early hours of yesterday morning that the bill collided with several fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed to the citizenry in the constitution.
According to Edghill, the bill’s mandatory provision of up to 60 minutes of air time free of charge for public service broadcasting on privately-owned stations impinges on the freedom to receive ideas and information without interference, freedom to communicate ideas and the freedom to hold opinions without interference.
Additionally, he argued that the protection of private property from compulsory acquisition by the state without payment of adequate compensation and freedom to hold and publish political views of one’s choice were also among the civil liberties that may be trampled.
Edghill stressed that private broadcasters should be able to make a policy decision about whether or not to broadcast political opinions and suggested that the bill will stifle and frustrate the civil liberties of broadcasters, since all existing licensees would immediately be terminated and licencees would have to apply for a new licence within 30 days at the Guyana National Broad-casting Authority’s discretion.
The concern raised by Edghill and repeated by several other opposition MPs, including Clement Rohee, was that there was some sinister motive to the tabling of the amendments.
Rohee specifically accused government of attempting to use the amendments to revoke the licences of certain operators, so as to score political points and fulfill their elections promise.
But Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, who piloted the bill through its readings, maintained that there was no political motive behind the amendments. He argued instead that the intention of the principal Act remains to allow the authority to grant broadcasting licences guided by the considerations of national sovereignty, public safety and order.
Minister of Public Tele-communications Catherine Hughes specifically noted that public service broadcasting has always been mandatory under the law, which calls for a certain percentage of air time to be granted. She noted that the amendment merely sets that percentage at a period not exceeding 60 minutes per day.
Trinidad and Tobago, she explained, requires up to 14 hours per calendar week for the transmission of similar programmes from its broadcasters.