Broadcasting Bill

On Thursday a Bill was introduced in Parliament intended to amend the Broadcasting Act of 2011. For all those sensitive to issues related to freedom of the press, one section leapt from the page: the requirement that every broadcasting agency should broadcast public service programming for sixty minutes a day between the hours of 6 am and 10 pm free of cost. Furthermore, the Bill requires the broadcasting agency to provide the Guyana National Broadcasting Authority (GNBA) with either a fixed schedule or a rotation of time slots when it intends to broadcast public service programmes. The Authority may direct that this be readjusted to ensure that distribution is spread across various time slots.

And what, one may reasonably ask, is public service programming? It is defined in Section 2 of the Bill as “the broadcast of a programme 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.” The First Schedule gives further detail by saying that the sixty minutes shall include time allotted for any address to the nation by the President; and an emergency notice or disaster warning by the Civil Defence Commission, the Guyana Police Force and the various other disciplined services and government agencies.

It doesn’t take too much imagination in a country like this to see how easy it is for material defined as informative and educative to slither into the propaganda category. After all, it is the government at some level which will be deciding what the content should be and whether it will benefit the public. And it doesn’t matter a sow’s whisker which government we are talking about; the point applies to any government in office. Does the Cabinet think, for example, that Guyanese are so naïve as not to notice that addresses to the nation by the President have been included in the Bill for mandatory transmission, and that some of these are not immune from partisan political content? They surely could not have believed that the public would ignore the fact that the requirement thumbs its nose at media freedom, and allows the insertion of the state into private media operations.

In a feeble attempt to appear even-handed, there is a provision which allows a broadcaster to complain if they do not think a programme is of a public service nature. But who do they complain to?  GNBA, of course. And who decides if the complaint has any substance? Why, GNBA, naturally. Under the 2011 Act, all the members of the Authority are appointed by the President, including the chairman, although one of them is nominated by the Leader of the Opposition following “meaningful” consultation with the parliamentary opposition parties.

It is not as if, therefore, a broadcaster would have recourse to an independent entity to decide the character of a compulsory public programme.  Needless to say there will be sanctions if a broadcaster “arbitrarily” refuses to transmit a programme without a complaint being determined, although nothing is said about a broadcaster still refusing to broadcast one after the Authority had not found in their favour. In short, in practice there will be no such thing as rejecting a programme.

The whole notion of a private operator being required to broadcast material free from a state source on a daily basis is unmitigated nonsense. Yet arguably even more nonsensical is the fact that the Prime Minister, that one-time champion of the free media, rose in Parliament and had the temerity to tell the assembled MPs that the proposed amended legislation would be “freeing up broadcasters from being held hostage” by the 2011 Act, because the latter gave the GNBA power to demand uncapped periods of time for public service broadcasts. What this means is that instead of deleting an odious provision from the law on grounds of principle as it should have done, the government retained it, but made its formulation considerably more precise. The broadcasters and by extension, the citizenry, are now being asked by the Prime Minister to applaud the administration’s tidiness of language.

The following day it was the turn of Minister of Telecommunications Catherine Hughes, who told Parliament that in Trinidad and Tobago broadcasters were obligated to transmit similar programmes for 14 hours per calendar week. She did not, however, elaborate on exactly why what happens in T&T could justify what was done here, an entirely different polity, and one which more especially has had a problematic history in relation to media freedom since independence. Neither did she nor Mr Nagamootoo have a word to say on how this provision was to be made consistent with the principle of freedom of expression, a constitutional right.

This is not to say that the whole broadcasting scene did not need regularizing, or that former president Bharrat Jagdeo’s aberration in terms of the issuing of broadcast licences to friends and family prior to leaving office did not need addressing; but these are matters entirely unrelated to the question of private broadcasters providing obligatory time for public service transmissions. It might be noted in any case that even without compulsion, radio and TV operators would be unlikely to refuse to relay a genuine emergency notice, and several of them would voluntarily elect to broadcast the President’s addresses to the nation. But voluntary is what it should be.

As it is the government owns NCN TV and Radio, in addition to which it has a government information service in the form of the Department of Public Information. How can it possibly argue, therefore, that it lacks outlets on the airwaves to convey its message or the information it would like to disseminate? It simply does not need private broadcast time. In addition, the government is trying to install itself in the private stations in an era where the younger generation in particular – but some of the older generation too – spend much of their time on social media, and that, Prime Minister Nagamootoo can’t control.

In the Burnham years private radio stations were taken over by the state (there was no television in those days), and the national newspapers either went under one way or another, leaving only the Guyana Chronicle, under state control. Various small publications such as the Liberator for a time, and those from the WPA tried to survive in a very hostile climate, but the two which managed to scrape a difficult existence (and they were not dailies) were the Catholic Standard and the Mirror. And the leading voice in defence of the Mirror at that time, was none other than Moses Nagamootoo, who spoke and wrote eloquently on the subject. In the 1970s, at least, part of Burnham’s defence of the intrusion of the state into the private media was the development communications/journalism notions of the day, not unrelated to arguments about public service information and promoting the policies and activities of government that benefit the public.

And now we have the irony of a Prime Minister who fought against Burnham for press freedom, railroading a Bill through the House (he refused to meet some of the broadcast owner/operators who were asking for a deferral), that includes a section on state encroachment on the private media with which Burnham would have been quite content. Some of those who work in the media have not forgotten the ten years of suppression under the former Prime Minister/President, and one wonders what happened to Mr Nagamootoo’s memory. The least that can be said is that he has a double tongue.

But then he is not the only one. What about the WPA? Eusi Kwayana in particular, paid a heavy price for distributing Dayclean in the Burnham years. How come the party is now prepared to tolerate state interference in the private broadcast media – and since content is being legislated, it is interference – and they have not demanded it be removed from the Bill? And then there is the AFC, full of garrulousness about the rule of law, press freedom and the like before May 2015, yet it is two of their leading spokespersons who shepherded the Bill through Parliament last week. There is too, it must be said, President David Granger himself, no neophyte in the world of journalism. Did he endorse the Bill in its entirety, or did the Prime Minister omit to show him the relevant portion?

Finally, of course, there is the PPP, which as indicated above argued cogently for press freedom when Burnham was in office, and under Hoyte, promised the radio monopoly would be lifted. They did no such thing, of course, until, as mentioned earlier, Mr Jagdeo was about to leave in 2011. While they sat in Parliament and voted against the current Bill, and their spokesman, Mr Juan Edghill said that the section collided with fundamental rights in the Constitution, it was they who when in government included the original format of the offending section in their 2011 Act.

What we have, therefore, is politicians who only argue for principle when in opposition; once they are in office, it is all about power and control. Are they surprised that the public has so little respect for them? Can we find one single one among them who is genuinely concerned about media freedom and freedom of expression, and is consistent on the subject?

Whatever the case, we have taken a step back into the past where media freedom is concerned.

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