Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo Thursday night defended government’s decision to amend the Broadcasting Act, compelling private radio and television stations to set aside 60 minutes every day for “public service” programmes, saying the law would now put a “cap” on airtime.
He told the National Assembly that the principal act passed by the then People’s Progressive Party Civic (PPPC)-led administration under President Bharrat Jagdeo was open-ended on the amount of airtime that the Guyana National Broadcasting Authority (GNBA) could ask stations to allocate for “public service” content.
Nagamootoo said the Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill, for which debate would continue Friday in the National Assembly, provides for a “cap” on the amount of time. “It had no cap. It could be any amount of percentage, any amount of time to be arrogated by the State for what it considered to be public service broadcasts so we decided in this government that we will lend clarity to the law and we will lend certainty to the law by freeing up broadcasters from being held hostage to a law that says that you have to give public broadcasting time for any undefined period so we now add certainty,” he told the House.
The Prime Minister went ahead with the debate, despite a request by a group of private radio and television broadcasters for them to meet him and discuss their concerns. The Guyana Press Association (GPA) also opposed the amendment to the extent that the government , through the GNBA,could now dictate the scheduling of the one hour if it is dissatisfied with the fixed or rotating schedules for the specified time between 6 AM and 10 PM each day. However, Nagamootoo assured that the amendment would not allow government to impose its will or violate freedom of expression. “This is in no way an impediment on freedom of the media. It is in no way an imposition on a broadcaster who is given a licence to a very limited and finite national resource and access to our electro-magnetic spectrum, the assignment of a frequency for a broadcast radio or television facility so that every permission or every right or every licence should come some obligations,” he said amid loud heckling by the opposition PPP.
Government wants the one hour for an address to the Nation by the President, emergency notice or disaster warning issued by the Civil Defence Commission, Guyana Police Force, Guyana Fire Service, Minister of Public Health and the “government generally by any agency duly authorised.
He rubbished claims that broadcasting stations had not been consulted and displayed minutes of a meeting held on March 3, 2017 between the GNBA Board and broadcasters. As the subject minister, he said he then consulted with the GNBA.
Touting the amendment that facilitates the allocation of time for government content as “of tremendous benefit” to private radio and television stations, the Prime Minister slammed critics such as Jagdeo who is now Opposition Leader. “This mischief that is being peddled that this Bill would be the death of the freedom of the press is purely a diversion away from the ‘Jagdeo Act’ that provides for open-ended…that it was intended to hold captive the operators of television and radio stations in Guyana,” he said.
Nagamootoo said the law now defines public service broadcasts to mean the “broadcast of a programme 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” as distinct from party propaganda. “A differentiation should be made between party propaganda and government information. This government is committed to respecting the taxpayers’ wishes that they be informed what is being done with their monies…so that there is a definition for the first time for broadcasting and public broadcasting now to be included in the principal act,” he said.
Instead of being placed in regulations that would have been approved by the House without debate, they have been included in the Principal Act to also clearly define and introduce what are commercial, non-commercial and community classes as well as the primary, secondary and tertiary zones. “In its schedule, the zones have been set out so that people do not squat on national frequencies that they do not intend to use or that frequencies are given and the operators do not have the capacity to service the entire country and they concentrate only where they can earn from the advertising market in the highly concentrated, he highly populated areas rather than serving all the people of this country,” he said.
The Bill also prohibits racial and terrorist incitement by stations. Nagamootoo said the amendments would see private television stations paying an annual licence fee of GYD$1.2 million instead of GYD$2.5 million in the primary zone.