One day after private broadcast companies came out to criticise the Government over the proposed Broadcast Amendment Bill and asked for the deferral of the debate and passage of a recently-tabled bill, the Guyana Press Association (GPA) has come out in support of these companies.
“We stand in solidarity with local broadcasters on this issue and will be seeking further legal advice to convince the Government of the need to halt or reverse this process given the severe consequences these amendments pose to freedom of the press in Guyana and the commercial viability of private radio and television stations,” the GPA said in a strongly worded statement.
The press body claimed that the amendments being sought will essentially introduce an unwarranted “programme manager” position by the State in the daily schedules of radio and television stations. It said, “The overall provision for the allocation of 60 minutes for public service programmes will disrupt and violate contractual obligations that stations will have with advertisers and programme sponsors.”
While recognising that private broadcasters have an important role to play in cases of emergencies and disasters, including matters of public health, the GPA said it out-rightly opposed the actual allocation of times or the need to inform the authority about this or for the authority to dictate time slots if it does not agree with those allocated by the stations.
“The GPA strongly objects to the Guyana Government seeking to redefine what constitutes “public service programmes” as this is in direct contradiction and a violation of the letter and spirit of the definition of public service broadcasting as laid down by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) of which Guyana is a member,” it explained.
In referring to one of UNESCO’s factors in determining public service broadcasting is independent and free from State and political control, the Press Association asserted that public broadcasting is a forum where ideas should be expressed freely, where information, opinions and criticisms can circulate.
This is, according to the body, possible only if the broadcaster is independent, thereby allowing the freedom of public broadcasting to be maintained against commercial or political influence.
“If the information provided by the public broadcaster was influenced by the Government, people are less likely to believe the content. Likewise, if the public broadcaster’s programming were designed for commercial ends, people would not understand why they are being asked to finance a service providing programming that is not substantially different from those provided by commercial broadcasters.”
The GPA also thinks President David Granger and the rest of the Cabinet may have been ill-advised by Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo of what constitutes “public service programmes.” Nagamootoo holds the portfolio of Broadcasting and Information Minister.
Further legal advice from local and international experts is being sought by the GPA. The Association also plans on raising this matter with its affiliates such as the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM) and the International Press Institute (IPI), and other global press freedom bodies.
Several private media owners and operators have expressed several concerns about the Bill. Most of them have said that this Bill could negatively impact their operations, particularly as it relates to the licensing fee structure, the imposition on property and infringement to determine broadcast content. They also claimed that they were not consulted on the amendments.
Opposition Leader Dr Bharrat Jagdeo has said that the Bill in its current form is a direct attack on press freedom while urging broadcasters not to sit idly by and allow the Government, through its one-seat majority, to get its way with the passage of the Bill; but rather seek recourse through the courts.
Part two of the Bill sets out that broadcast agencies will be mandated to broadcast public service programmes for a total of up to one hour daily. Broadcast agencies will be airing these public service programmes free of cost and as requested by the Government between 06:00h and 22:00h.
It is also states that the GNBA reserves the right to direct a broadcasting agency to broadcast emergency notices or disaster warnings for any length of time, and regularly during peak or prime advertising time periods, depending on the nature of the emergency and having regard to public safety.
Revoking the 2014 broadcasting regulations, the Act also puts those broadcasters who are already licensed at the mercy of the Authority. It mandates that any licensed entity carrying out broadcast services immediately before the act went into effect will have no choice but to reapply within 30 days for a licence in accordance with the amended law, in addition to a plethora of other restrictions.