PPP/C Member of Parlia-ment Anil Nandlall has said that a number of media operators have responded positively to his advice that they challenge the recently passed amendments to the broadcast legislation in court.
“I said to them that [the Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2017] is manifestly and palpably unconstitutional and inherently authoritarian and dictatorial and it should, it must be challenged in the courts of law,” Nandlall told a press conference on Saturday at the Office of the Leader of the Opposition on Church Street.
The bill, which will update the Broadcasting Act of 2011, was passed by government following a lengthy debate, which started on Thursday night and ended last Friday night.
The amendments will require all 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 will 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 Government that benefit the public as a whole.”
Several private operators had urged the government to defer the passage of the bill in order for there to be consultations and the Guyana Press Association (GPA) had also voiced concern over its content.
Nandlall told reporters that having recognised the unconstitutionality of the bill, he had advised all broadcasters and persons who will be affected by it to move to the court to challenge it.
“Now examine this bill, examine the conditionalities that it imposes before you are able to exercise your right of the freedom of the press. No competent court in my view will regard the combination of these conditionalities as that which is required or reasonably required in a democratic society. A court, properly advised, …will strike down this bill as unconstitutional,” he said.
Speaking as an attorney at law, he said that any member of the public can approach the court asking for a conservatory order to be granted to stop the enforcement of the bill on the ground that it is unconstitutional. He said that the court can also be asked to strike out each provision that is unconstitutional and also for damages for a breach of constitutional rights.
He added that in his discussions with some broadcasters, he did offer this bit of advice and “a lot of them expressed an interest [in moving to the court].”
A group of media operators and owners had penned a letter to Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo asking for a meeting and in the absence of such, a deferral of the passage of the bill. Nagamootoo has not responded, this newspaper was informed.
According to Nandlall, the bill was passed one week after it was introduced in the House, bypassing transparency, consultations, discussion, engagement with stakeholders and other important ingredients. As a result, he said that fundamentals that are necessary for the functioning of an effective democracy have been tossed aside by the Granger administration.
He added that while time did not allow for the PPP to consult “properly” with its supporters, a meeting was held with the media operators who are likely to be affected by the passage of this bill. He said the media operators were not even aware of the contents of the bill and they saw it for the first time when it was distributed at the meeting.
Nandlall said that the bill will “materially” affect how the media conducts its affairs because it interferes with “your freedom to determine your editorial and other broadcasting and other publication agenda because it imposes upon you obligations in a mandatory faction which also will have dire financial and economic consequences.”