‘Public service programming’ by private broadcasters smacks of political dictatorship

Dear Editor,

In almost every policy of this administration and in almost every Bill tabled in the National Assembly, one can easily discern some element of authoritarianism. The Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill of 2017 suffers from an overdose. It collides with several fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed to the citizenry by the Constitution, including the freedom to receive ideas and information without interference; freedom to communicate ideas and information without interference; freedom to hold opinions without interference; 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.

Licences such as broadcasting licences are not mere licences, but are licences which are coupled with a proprietary interest. Hence, one can sell one’s broadcasting licence for millions of dollars, as has been done several times in Guyana. This Bill, when it comes into force, immediately terminates all existing licences and mandates the licensees to apply for new licences in accordance with the Bill, within 30 days. Clearly, this is in violation of Article 142 of the Constitution which guarantees protection of private property against compulsory acquisition by the state. That no hearing is afforded to the licensee prior to the revocation, compounds the matter.

The unlawfulness is further aggravated by the fact that there is no guarantee that these licences which are revoked would be reissued. More fundamentally, even if licences are reissued, they will be severely altered and many of them may not enjoy the spectrum reach which they now enjoy. Moreover, a new regime of fees will be imposed under the Bill based upon the number of zones which the broadcaster will now be licensed to broadcast in. From all indications, the new regime of fees is going to be much more financially onerous than the current regime.

Legislation that imposes a regime of conditions upon civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution that is draconian has been repeatedly struck down as unconstitutional in the Commonwealth on the ground that it stifles, frustrates and derogates from those civil liberties. This Bill is likely to suffer the same fate.

Perhaps the most egregious aspect of the Bill is that it imposes a mandatory obligation upon broadcasters to carry “public service programmes” for a total of 60 minutes per day between 06:00h and 22:00h, free of cost. The Constitution and the law aside, this is rank vulgarity and smacks of political dictatorship. “Public service programmes” is an obscene euphemism for government propaganda. Inherent in the freedom to publish, is the freedom not to publish. Mandating broadcasters, therefore, to publish government information is an infringement of freedom of the press.

Additionally, freedom to hold and publish one’s political views of choice includes a freedom not to publish a particular political view. This Bill denies broadcasters that freedom.

This Bill comes from a political coalition, which, while it was in the opposition, cut budgetary allocation to GINA and NCN, state-owned agencies, on the grounds that they were publishing too much “government propaganda”. Now in government, this coalition, is forcing, by law, private broadcasters to publish government propaganda. The irony is as nauseating as the hypocrisy.

Yours faithfully,

Mohabir Anil Nandlall, MP

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