The Broadcasting Bill

Another brick in the creation of an authoritarian state was laid in the middle of the night when the Government, using its one-seat majority, passed “The Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2017”.
It was not just the Opposition PPP that opposed the Bill; so had the Guyana Press Association (GPA), and the Private Media Association, which had asked for a clarificatory meeting with Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, the minister in charge of information.
While the government of the day in a liberal democracy can regulate the workings of the free market, it is not an unfettered power; and more so when such regulation concerns the flow of information. The Government has to demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that the regulation satisfies a pressing public need to know. After all, the modern state was dubbed a “Leviathan” by the very man, Thomas Hobbes, who justified such a state, and the word is now a metaphor for oppressive governments.
In the evolution of democratic governance since, the media — in the form of the press in the beginning, but soon incorporating other mechanisms for transmitting information, such as radio, television, and now the Internet — have played a fundamental role in protecting the rights of citizens against the Leviathan state. It can do this by being guaranteed the freedom not to be arbitrarily restricted on the content of what it can or cannot broadcast. The laws in this area are so well known as to be trite in the modern era: freedom of information and of the press.
It is for this reason that the private media groups requested clarification on the Bill from the Prime Minister/Minister of Information. They could not possibly conceive of a situation wherein the Government would have the sole power to define what constitutes “public service” announcements for daily one-hour broadcast on radio and television between 06:00h and 19:00h daily, as the bill mandates.
While it has been accepted both here and abroad that messages from the police, the weather authorities etc. should be broadcast once they qualify as “public service announcements”, no regulation from any democratic government approaches the phrasing of “The Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2017” to include: “programmes produced for the purpose of informing and educating the public, and promoting policies and activities of the Government that benefit the public as a whole.” This is tantamount to broadcasting Government propaganda.
It is redolent of the “Development support Communications” enunciated by Forbes Burnham in 1974, when he declared, “…the government has a right, as the final arbiter of things national, to formulate a policy of the media so that the media (sic) can play a much more important part than it has played in the past in mobilising the people of the country for the development of the country.” The same year, in consonance with the philosophy of being “the final arbiter”, Burnham had declared the PNC as being “paramount” over the state.
Another bone of contention in the bill is that it demands that all radio and television broadcasters reapply to be licensed within 30 days of the bill being signed into law, or face immediate closure of their operations. Those broadcasters who had failed to apply for licences or were rejected by the broadcast authority would also be forced to halt operations immediately, or be found guilty of an offence — for which they could face a one-year prison term, a fine of $1 million, and forfeiture of all their equipment.
As has been pointed out by the broadcasters, this requirement arbitrarily terminates the licences of the broadcasters for no stated reason, and would subject their licences to possible permanent termination, since they would be applying as if de novo. This is an infraction on their constitutionally protected right to property – tied to the licences – which can only be disturbed with adequate compensation.
It is clear that, once again, the courts will have to rule that the Executive cannot act according to its “perceptions” of the constitution.