Minister of State Joseph Harmon last week Thursday regaled the National Assembly with an account of how a former PPP/C administration hijacked the national airwaves by granting licences to family, friends and political allies but at least one of the broadcasters mentioned was unimpressed with his presentation.
Harmon told the House during the debate of the Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill that the previous administration operated with a mindset that the airwaves belonged to the PPP/C and was to be distributed among its supporters.
Against this background, he stressed that the bill’s 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 was not about taking away anything but about “breaking the shackles on freedom of expression and giving people a choice of content to listen to.”
The minister took the time to list those agencies which had been granted broadcasting frequencies across the country, while taking particular aim at those directly connected to the opposition party.
He noted that Freedom Radio Inc, the station owned by the PPP, had been granted audio broadcasting rights in eight of the 10 administrative regions as were Iradio and Radio Guyana. Even the National Communications Network (NCN) did not have this reach as its audio licence only extends to regions 3, 4 and 9. Pinnacle Communication Inc operates in Region 2, ANG Inc, Hits and Jam Radio Inc and Wireless Communication in regions 3, 4 and Georgetown, while Little Rock operates in Region 5 and Linden Wireless Communications Network Inc. is authorised to operate in Region 10.
The minister also said that a licence to operate on several television frequencies was granted to the entity E-Networks, which is owned by Vishok Persaud, who is the son of late PPP stalwart Reepu Daman Persaud.
In regions 3 and 4, Persaud was granted cable channels 36, 37, 43, 44, 45, 47, 48 and 49, while in regions 5 and 6 his company was awarded cable channels 43, 44, 45,47, 48 and 49.
Harmon went as far as accusing the PPP/C of hijacking certain frequencies in an attempt to flood the market with certain content. He explained that many of the vehicles imported into the country from Japan are not able to receive above the 90 MHz frequency without an expander. Therefore, by granting its supporters frequencies below this number, he said the PPP offered them immediate access to a large market as in excess of 40,000 and vehicles have been imported in the last six years. National Television Network (NTN) and Radio Guyana were also named as entities operating within this spectrum.
“This is fraud,” he declared, before adding that the people expect action and government will therefore act to “break the nefarious web spun around the people by a regime which will stop at nothing to gratify its friends at the expense of the Guyanese people.”
Anand Persaud, of NTN, described Harmon’s presentation as a political speech that ignored the concerns raised about the bill. “I don’t think they understand the situation. The calling out of the names of people who have licences to operate was uncalled for, those names have nothing to do with the amendment tabled and passed,” Persaud said.
Speaking on his own behalf, Persaud stressed that he applied to the relevant agencies and though Harmon argued that licences were improperly granted, he said a revocation may find the government on the losing side of another court case. “I don’t think Harmon understands the implication of revoking licenses,” he said.
Both local and international civil society organisations have called for President David Granger to return the bill to the House so that a process of consultation can be initiated with stakeholders.
On Wednesday, the Private Sector Commission (PSC) and the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI) called for Granger to return to bill to the House. The PSC, in a statement, said that the government missed a golden opportunity to revisit and revise the 2011 Broadcasting Act, which, at the time of its enactment, did not receive full and adequate consultation with the licenced broadcast owners and the general public. The PSC lamented that instead the government has used its parliamentary majority to enforce amendments of a bad bill, which bring into question the government’s intention with regard to the amendment’s real purpose.
The GCCI, after consultations with several of its members in the media industry, also released a statement expressing its concerns with the requirement that broadcasters reapply for licences and that they allocate a total of up to sixty minutes per day, between 6 am and 10 pm to public service broadcasting, free of cost. The GCCI appealed to the president to refrain from assenting to the bill in its current format, and suggested that it be sent to a select committee and that Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, who tabled it, hold consultations with industry stakeholders and consider amending the language of the bill.
The Guyana Press Association and two international press freedom bodies, Reporters Without Borders and the International Press Institute, have also expressed grave concern over the provisions of the bill and urged against the president assenting to it.