Broadcast law amendments outline ground-rules for govt content on private stations ; unlicensed stations’ equipment will be seized

Last Updated on Thursday, 27 July 2017, 18:01 by Denis Chabrol

Existing radio and television stations could be closed and their equipment seized if they do not apply for and are granted new licenses within 30 days of parliament’s approval of amendments to the Broadcasting Act, according to the Bill tabled in the House on Thursday. Government is also seeking to pass into how it intends to compulsorily have its content aired on private stations.

“Every person carrying on a broadcasting service immediately before the commencement of this Act without a licence shall apply within 30 days of the commencement of this Act for a broadcasting service licence in accordance with the provisions of the Principal Act as amended by this Act,” states the Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2017.

Demerara Waves Online News has been told that the 11 radio stations and 19 television stations, including those operated by the state-owned National Communications Network (NCN) that are currently on air have not had their licenses renewed for several years now. The National Frequency Management Unit (NFMU) has, according to sources, in recent days been asking stations to pay up outstanding spectrum fees.

While in opposition, the People’s National Congress Reform (PNCR)-dominated A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and the Alliance For Change (AFC) had expressed grave concern about the manner in which then President Bharrat Jagdeo had issued radio licences to several individuals and entities before the passage of the Broadcasting Act in 2011.

Stations, which had been previously issued broadcast licences, would also be required to apply within 30 days of the passage of the law.

The legislation stipulates that anyone failing to apply within the specified period  or where the licence has not been granted, “he shall immediately cease to carry on the broadcasting service”. Failing to do so could result in a GYD$1 million fine and seizure of the equipment.

“All machinery and equipment used, or which can be used, for broadcasting and owned by or in the possession of, the person concerned is liable to be forfeited; but property not owned by such person shall not be forfeited unless the court is satisfied that the owner of the property knew or ought to have, with reasonable diligence, know that the person convicted had no licence to carry on broadcasting service,” states the Bill.

The Bill, which was tabled by Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo states that all persons with pending applications for a broadcasting licence pending before the Guyana National Broadcasting Authority must re-apply and any fees paid shall form part of the new fees.

Sources said less than six broadcast licence applications have fulfilled all the criteria.

The amendments tabled on Thursday also give government sweeping legal powers to dictate the amount of airtime that private stations must provide to government for “public service programmes”. Specifically, the Bill states that radio and television stations must dedicate 60 minutes daily  free of cost between 6 AM and 10 PM. The 60 minutes are for the President’s addresses to the Nation, emergency notice or disaster warning issued by the Civil Defence Commission, Guyana Police Force, Guyana Fire Service, the Minister of Public Health and the Guyana government generally or any other authorised agency.

“With due consideration to the nature of the emergency and having regard to public safety, the Authority may direct a broadcasting agency to broadcast emergency notices or disaster warnings during peak or prime time or during a regular broadcast programme,” the Bill states.

Stations can file a complaint within 24 hours to the Broadcast Authority to broadcast programmes if they do not believe they are public service programmes. The authority can either rule that the programmes can be reasonably considered public service content and direct that they be broadcast free of cost.  An interim order can be issued to air the content and if after which it is found that the programme was not public service content order payment of regular programme cost for broadcasting the said programme.

Further, the Broadcasting Act may soon allow government to ask stations to designate separate time slots for public announcements that are urgent and of national significance and for repeating such announcement. The law will empower the Guyana National Broadcasting Authority to direct stations to adjust or vary their schedules fir public service programmes to “ensure that the distribution is spread across various time slots.

If radio and television stations “arbitrarily” refuse to broadcast a public service broadcast programme without a complaint being determined by the GNBA commits an offence.

In the original Act, the law had merely empowered the Minister responsible for broadcasting, where it appears to be necessary or expedient, may at any time by notice to the Authority direct licensees to broadcast such announcements “free of cost and as a public service.”

Instead of merely being in the regulations, which will now be repealed, the law now enshrines the classes of licences- commercial, non-commercial and community- as well as the lone primary zone, four secondary zones and three tertiary zones.