…warns broadcasters not to sit idly by
The Broadcast (Amendment) Bill 2017 was laid in the National Assembly on Thursday, but concerns have been raised about its far-reaching powers ever since it was revealed to contain provisions that compel private media to air Government broadcasts.
Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo, during a press conference on Friday, zeroed in
on the bill — which he referred to as an “expropriation of property and time” – adamantly contending that even when the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) was in office, it would not have dared make such a bill law, even though TV stations had refused to air programmes the then Government was willing to pay for.
“You would recall that when the coalition Government was in charge of the Parliament, between 2012 and 2015, they argued that GINA (Government Information Agency) was carrying too many Government programmes and that (a) minister doing their work was propaganda,” Jagdeo said.
He reminded that the then Opposition, which had a one-seat majority in Parliament, cut the GINA budget, leaving that entity penniless.
“At that time, a minister visiting a project was propaganda. Now the GINA budget is bigger than it was before, and private radio stations and television stations are required to give one hour per day for free to the Government to broadcast those programmes,” Jagdeo lamented.
Touching on the 24-hour timeframe that a broadcasting entity has to register with the Guyana Broadcasting Authority (GBA) its objection to carrying a particular broadcast, Jagdeo noted that a “win-win” situation has been created for the Government, because even if the GBA rules that the broadcast is not a public service announcement, the only outcome would be that the Government has to pay for its airing.
“So it doesn’t say, ‘You can’t carry it’, ‘(Government) just have to pay for it’. So automatically the Government gets your time, whether it is a (PSA) or not, for free; or they can pay for it. You don’t have any control over (that situation).
“This,” he continued, “is the beginning of the expropriation of public airwaves and getting Government propaganda to all parts of this country for free. These are just two elements of this bill that we will have to oppose.”
Jagdeo urged 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 broadcasters should seek recourse through the courts.
“This will not stand anywhere; it’s tantamount to expropriation of property in respect to the power it gives the authority to take away people’s licences and, secondly, to expropriate the times they have on television,” the Opposition Leader said.
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 6:00hrs and 22:00hrs.
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.
A broadcaster will have the right to file a complaint with the GNBA within 24 hours of being asked to broadcast a programme free of cost if, in the agency’s judgment, it is not considered a public service broadcast programme.
The GNBA, according to the draft provisos, “shall investigate and determine a complaint, and issue a ruling that the programme can be reasonably considered a public service broadcast programme, and direct the broadcasting agency to air the programme free of cost”.
Further, the broadcaster can “be granted an interim order to broadcast the announcement as a public service broadcast programme; and where the programme is not so considered to be a public broadcast programme”, the GNBA can order payment of regular programme cost for broadcasting the said programme.” But there is even a warning for broadcasters daring to oppose the legislation: the bill states that any broadcaster the GNBA finds to have “arbitrarily refused” to broadcast a public service broadcast programme without lodging a complaint has committed an offence.
However, there is no mention of what the penalty for said breach actually is. Reports have indicated that the draft legislation contained provisions for the GNBA to deem the broadcaster in breach of their licence.
When contacted about the missing penalty, GNBA Chairman, former Magistrate Leslie Sobers, indicated that in the absence of a general penalty clause, punishment for arbitrarily refusing to air a PSA would be up to the courts.
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 thirty days for a licence in accordance with the amended law.
“Where a person fails to make an application for a licence within the time specified, or where an application for a licence is not granted by (GNBA), he shall immediately cease to carry on the broadcasting service,” Section Nine, subsection three of the bill states.
Failing to cease operations if they are not granted a new licence by the GNBA would cause to be imposed on that broadcaster, on summary conviction, a fine of $1M and imprisonment for one year. In addition, all machinery and equipment used for broadcasting by the entity can be seized.