A fiery exchange on Friday in the National Assembly heralded the debate on the Broadcast (Amendment) Bill, but when the smoke cleared the Government side nevertheless pushed through the controversial piece of legislation.
The parliamentary Opposition asserted throughout the debate that the Bill was little more than a thinly veiled attempt to divest broadcasters who received their licenses in 2011 from the previous Administration, of their proprietary rights.
But in her presentation, Public Telecommunications Minister Cathy Hughes maintained that the reasoning for the Bill was because “there is insufficient Public Service Announcements (PSA) in Guyana.”
She posited that this was an opportunity for private broadcasters and should not be seen as a burden. Hughes stressed that the legislation only seeks to further define the powers and functions of the existing Broadcasting Bill, in addition to providing protection from inciting racism and airing hateful programmes.
Addressing the concerns raised with regards to the Amendment Bill requiring every broadcaster air one hour of Government oriented programmes daily, the Minister posited that “nearly all countries provide (these) requirements for public service broadcasting.”
Hughes referred to several incidents in the past that form her observations –including drowning situations – where citizens were unable to save their fellow humans due to them being uneducated with regards to performing CPR.
Referencing Opposition Leader Dr Bharrat Jagdeo’s claims that the Bill would infringe upon freedom of press, Hughes also lambasted the former President. Hughes’ accusations that Jagdeo, who was absent from the House, stepped on freedom of the press while in office, were hotly contested by the Opposition, forcing her at one point to withdraw certain statements until she had evidence.
In making his presentation in the debates, Opposition parliamentarian Clement Rohee asserted that “this Bill has strategic objectives.” He lambasted the Prime Minister for saying that the Bill would be revolutionary and progressive since according to him, “the Bill is counter revolutionary and anti-progressive.”
He maintained that this Broadcasting Amendment Bill was nothing but a campaign promise that Government had made, recalling mentions at the time that those who were offered licences by Jagdeo, would have it revoked.
Rohee warned that should the Amendment Bill be passed, “we are traversing a road that is full of a whole host of dangers.” He urged that the Constitution be followed and that Government hold consultations with the private broadcasters that would be affected by the clauses within the amendment.
“There has been a loud outcry by the stakeholders for consultations… I refer to the Constitution which imposes on the Government to include and consult others who are of the view that their economic well being is going to be affected.”
Responding to Minister Hughes’ claims of Jagdeo handing out broadcasting licences to his “friends and family”, Rohee said that the Government was “cherry-picking a few from a specific ethnicity just to make a political point.”
In his contribution to the debate, Attorney General Basil Williams refuted claims that licensees are guaranteed proprietary rights under Article 142 of the Constitution of Guyana.
He stated that licensees are granted temporary licences and are not the outright owners of their frequencies.
In his rebuttal, Nandlall read excerpts from a presentation made by current Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan when he was then the Leader of the Alliance For Change. In addition, Nandlall stressed that broadcasters who were granted licences by former President Jagdeo have paid over $100 million from when they were granted same in 2011.
The former Attorney General also read a statement from the Guyana Press Association (GPA), in which reservations were expressed about the content of the amendments.
Nandlall also debunked Williams’ assertion that outright ownership of a property was determined by holding an actual title. He reiterated that due process for dealing with the property of citizens acquired by the State was adequate compensation.
“Any person vaguely familiar with the law knows that anything that has value fits the description of property,” Nandlall stated. “Anything that has economical value is property. The Constitution says that if you take away that property, in this case the licence, under a law then that law must provide prompt and adequate compensation.”
In his closing presentation on the Bill, Nagamootoo asserted that the only consultations that are mandated are the consultations the Government had with the Guyana National Broadcasting Authority (GNBA) and the National Frequency Management Unit (NFMU).
However, he nevertheless asserted that the GNBA indeed had consultations with broadcasters in 2016. The Prime Minister declined to directly contest the arguments made by Nandlall, save to reiterate that Government is not empowered by the Act to infringe on the rights of broadcasters.
As the matter was put to vote, opposition from the People’s Progressive Party resulted in a division being called. The Government side, already with a one seat majority, won the roll call vote. ( Jarryl Bryan).