Government intends to control broadcasters not protect the public interest

Dear Editor,

The new broadcast bill comes across not so much as an attempt to protect the public interest as is being presented by government, but as the intent to intimidate and control broadcasters. It harps back to memories of the total control of all forms of broadcasting and print media during the Burnham era. Government should facilitate free speech and encourage a diversity of programming and equal access to airtime for all views. But it must not forcibly impose its programmes on broadcasters for free air time. The bill is draconian. And while I am in favour of integrating vital public goals into a commercial milieu (private broadcasters), government cannot require broadcasting rights without paying for them. Broadcasting is a private business. The operators paid for their licence to conduct business in the public domain and must recover costs to stay in business. If private entities wish to run a programme on government stations, they have to pay the government that does not run private programmes for free. Similarly, private broadcasters cannot be coerced by fiat to run government programmes.

What surprises me is this bill is being piloted by the esteemed Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, a man who worked as a journalist for over forty years. It leaves a lot of unanswered questions since the PM has a long history of championing press independence in Guyana. So why is Mr Nagamootoo going in the opposite direction now?

In a way, this new bill to control broadcasting is worse than what took place during the PPP administration when CN Sharma’s TV station was closed down twice.

Usually, government seeks to impose its programmes on broadcasters when access has been denied or when there is a violation of what is known in broadcast journalism as the ‘fairness doctrine’. But government’s public interest messages are not being denied air time by private broadcasters; news on or about the government and opposition as well as on the public are constantly being aired. Additionally, government has its own TV and radio stations to broadcast public interest messages. If anything, the government has violated the fairness principle by not giving the political opposition and the public equal airtime. So the public and opposition should impose its programmes on the government.

Broadcasting rights (waves) are private property (though public) bought (leased) and owned (paid a fee for usage) by people, and government cannot impose its will in relation to people’s property mandating what they do with their private property unless the property poses a danger to the public or is not serving the public interest. Since the government has not made a claim that broadcast stations pose an imminent danger to the public, it cannot impose its will on privately owned broadcast stations. Government has a right to require a diversity of programmes and views and equal access to various entities to airtime. But it cannot mandate airtime unless there is an urgent public interest or in time of war, etc. Those conditions have not been met.

In my studies on American constitutional law as it pertains to freedom of speech and control of broadcasting rights, the US government does exercise some control over private stations but does not mandate programmes. There are countless US Supreme Court cases on the subject; in recent times, government lost most of them and Congress has backed off on attempts at requiring public interest programmes. The US, like Guyana, also has publicly (government) owned stations. In the early years of broadcasting, the government asked and was allowed the airing of public interest programmes because it lacked public stations everywhere. The US Supreme Court, the final arbiter of law, early on sided with the government in court challenges to the government imposition of its public interest programmes and regulations. But the stations were not politicized as government was not politicizing interest programmes and all sides were given relatively equal time. In later years with the advent of countless stations, the US Supreme Court has limited the government’s attempt to control broadcasting or to impose its programmes. The government in recent times has paid to broadcast public interest messages and ads on private stations. These ads are always accepted by private operators. Some stations also carry public interest programmes commercial free. Before the Guyana government can force broadcasters to carry its public interest programmes, it will have to show that the broadcast marketplace or a broadcaster is not adequately serving public needs. But the government has not made that claim, and in fact it cannot be demonstrated. There are countless public interest programmes in most if not all TV stations. Furthermore, the government stations have been broadcasting public interest programmes. So it is not as if the public is denied access to interest programmes, however defined (enhancing health, education, general education, the electoral process, governance, political discourse, local community affairs, culture, etc) by government.

And if government is going to require public programming or airtime on private stations, then it must adhere to the principle of fairness. In fact, all stations right now should adhere to the doctrine of fairness as is the case in the US where it is mandated by law. The doctrine of fairness simply means the view of all sides on an issue must be aired if one side gets airtime. If government requires airtime on a station, then the opposition must also get equal airtime, and this principle has been violated on government stations.

The government may try to sell the bill as a social responsibility of station operators. But the concept of social responsibility is built into a media’s modus operandi. One can argue as to the scope and direction this has taken in Guyana, but at the end of the day corporate social responsibility in public broadcasting is not mandated in the vast majority of democratic nations; there are no known cases in the Caribbean community of nations. With respect to this bill, the proposed mandates may exist in dictatorships, whereas in working democracies the media come voluntarily to the social responsibility table, offering pro bono time as they see fit.  And this is how it should be, with peer pressure forcing those lagging behind to ante up.

Private media must, at the least, oppose the bill and if it passes in the House must challenge it in the court.

Governments, including succeeding ones in Guyana, have shown they can never be trusted with  control over the media.

Yours faithfully,

Vishnu Bisram


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