Govt unit flouts court order to demand exorbitant broadcast fees

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…as Media Association highlights dishonest Nagamootoo-led DPI outfit

The local media fraternity, through its broadcasters, and the Coalition Administration, through the Minister of Information, Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, are at loggerheads over the payment of fees; and broadcasters are

Chairman of the GNBA Leslie Sobers

disputing official statements emanating from the Government’s Department of Public Information to the effect that all is well in the media landscape.
The matter has since attracted the attention of the Guyana Media Association (GMA), which has since condemned demands made for payment in violation of a court decision handed down by then Chief Justice Ian Chang in May 2014. An absolute order was made on that date.
According to the GMA, the Guyana National Broadcasting Authority (GNBA) is currently demanding fees which are being asked for as back-payments from the year 2014.
“It is this Association’s understanding that the Authority is making the demand for these back-payments on the basis of fees set under a court-overturned regulation

Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo

which was instituted by the past administration”, the GMA has said.
The decision by then Chief Justice Chang follows an action by four existing broadcasters to challenge the imposition of $2.5 million in fees, which represented a 1000 per cent increase, and would cause financial ruin. It was considered in breach of Article 146 of the Constitution, which guaranteed the broadcasters’ right to freedom of expression.
The Broadcasting Act, as noted in the decision, allows for a fee ‘which shall be a sum equivalent to such percentage of the gross revenue of the licensee as the Minister may by regulations prescribe.’
This, according to the GMA, does not allow for the imposition of a fee to be prescribed by the Minister under an option where, if the percentage of the gross is less than $2.5 million, the Authority will ask for the greater sum of $2.5 million, as being demanded.
In his decision on May 9, 2014, the Chief Justice examined the sections in the Broadcasting Act, distinguishing between a grant fee for a new licence and an annual fee.
The Chief Justice, in his decision, stated the Authority’s reliance on regulations which were published on November 29, 2013 in the Official Gazette. This set out the demand of $2.5 million if it is greater than a gross percentage.
Justice Chang had at the time also ruled that while the relevant section empowers the Minister to make regulations on grant fees, such a fee ‘would, of necessity, apply only to first time broadcasters, and not to existing broadcasters.’ In granting the order in favour of the existing broadcasters, Justice Chang had ruled: “It goes without saying that an annual fee based on a percentage of gross revenue of the previous year cannot apply to a first-time broadcaster, and can apply only to existing broadcasters…On the other hand, a grant fee of $2.5 million cannot apply to existing broadcasters, and can apply only to first-time broadcasters.”
He further ruled that the ‘grant fee of $2.5 million has no application to the applicants, as existing broadcasters.
According to the GMA, the Broadcasting Act 2011 required existing broadcasters to re-apply for their licences within 30 days, a stipulation with which they complied.
An Amendment which was passed in 2017 duplicates this requirement by asking existing broadcasters to again re-apply within 30 days.
Meanwhile, contrary to reports issued by the Department of Public Information under its Director Imran Khan — a unit which falls under the purview of Prime Minister and Minister of Information Moses Nagamootoo — local and regional media associations have also challenged the requirement of allocating free time of 60 minutes for public service broadcasting, imposed in the Amendment and defined in the Amendment to include the promotion of ‘policies and activities of the Government that benefit the public as a whole.’
According to the GMA, international press bodies among others have urged the President not to assent to the amendment, with Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), also known as Reporters Without Borders, urging for ‘“consultations with broadcasters, in order to take into account their recommendations”.
The Department of Public Information has, however, reported that the GNBA, in a letter to Prime Minister Nagamootoo, “has reported that following discussions with several broadcasters, there has been positive feedback”, and no broadcaster has “expressed any disagreement with the sixty (60) minutes’ time allocation for PSA”.
The letter, dated September 8, 2017 and signed by the Chairman of the GNBA, Mr. Leslie Sobers, also stated that “the GNBA fully supports the Amendments as passed by the National Assembly in August 2017”, and that the board “has formally tabled a motion” to communicate same to the Prime Minister.
The GNBA, in updating Prime Minister Nagamootoo, reported that meetings with broadcasters will continue, and that the number of compliant broadcasters has doubled from 6 to 12 from July 2017 to September 8th, 2017, with regards those making payments.
The Broadcast (Amendment) Bill 2017 was passed in the National Assembly, and is awaiting the assent of President David Granger.