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Global pressure mounts on Guyana President not to sign broadcast bill into law

President David Granger

Global pressure on Tuesday intensified on President David Granger not to sign amendments to Guyana’s Broadcasting Act into law, citing violation of media freedom and viability of privately-owned media.

Reporters Without Borders on Tuesday added its voice to calls already made by the Guyana Press Association (GPA), Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM) and the International Press Institute (IPI) for the Bill to be scrapped.

Government has suggested during debate last week that the amendments, which require among other things, for all radio and television stations to apply for new licences within 30 days, is partly aimed at ensuring equitable allocation of frequencies.

The opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP) fears that the legislative change is aimed at closing down its Freedom Radio station as well as other radio and television stations that were licensed by then President Bharrat Jagdeo before the Broadcasting Act was passed in 2011.

Following are the full texts of the statements issued by Reporters Without Borders and the International Press Institute (IPI).

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urges President David A. Granger not to assent to the Broadcasting Bill that was adopted by Guyana’s National Assembly last Friday, and calls for consultations with broadcasters in order to take into account their recommendations. The current Bill, which was adopted without such consultation, raises multiple press freedom concerns.

On August 4, Guyana’s National Assembly adopted The Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill of 2017, a piece of legislation which has drawn sharp criticism from broadcasters as well as local and regional press groups. Guyana’s President David A. Granger still has to assent to the Bill before it can take effect.

According to the government, the new legislation is meant to address the issue of illegal broadcasters who have long been operating without a license. Yet the Bill calls for all broadcasters to apply for a license within 30 days of its entry into force, a time limit that is being criticized by local and regional press freedom groups as too short. Broadcasters found operating without a license could be fined up to one million Guyanese dollars and sentenced to one year imprisonment. According to local press freedom advocates, these burdensome provisions threaten the existence of many TV and radio stations who have operated without a license since no renewals were ever issued at the time of their expiration.

Another point of contention is a provision mandating that 60 minutes of “public service programs” be broadcast on TV and radio stations between the hours of 6am and 10pm free of cost, which has been heavily criticized by the Guyana Press Association (GPA). In a statement issued last week, the GPA argued that this requirement would “disrupt and violate contractual obligations that stations will have with advertisers and program sponsors.” The GPA went on to argue that the government’s desire to define the meaning of “public service programs” would limit independence from government interference in private broadcasting.

But what is most worrying about the Bill is its process of adoption, which involved no consultations with any broadcasters, even though repeated attempts were made to meet with Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo both leading up to and during parliamentary debate last week. Nagamootoo claims that broadcasters were consulted in 2011 when the original Bill was drafted, but the legislation adopted last Friday involved several amendments for which broadcasters were never given the opportunity to provide their input.

“It would appear that the legislative process in Guyana failed to adequately address broadcasters’ concerns regarding a new law that would impact their day-to-day operations and could even threaten their existence,” said Margaux Ewen, Advocacy and Communications Director for RSF’s North America Bureau. “RSF urges President Granger not to assent to this legislation until these concerns can be addressed through meaningful consultation.”

In a statement issued Monday, the regional group Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM) called for meetings between the President and broadcasters and argued “this is the best option to avoid what may be a protracted legal matter that would be unhelpful in achieving the desired objectives of the parties concerned.”

Guyana ranks 60th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.

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Statement issued by the International Press Institute

The government of Guyana should address serious concerns raised by local media groups over pending amendments to the country’s broadcast law, the International Press Institute (IPI) said today.

Local critics say the amendments, passed on Friday by Guyana’s National Assembly and now awaiting the signature of President David A. Granger, grant the state “unwarranted” power to manage the programming of radio and television stations by allocating time slots for public service programming dictated by the government.

In a joint statement last week before the bill was passed, a group of private Guyanese broadcasters called for debate to be deferred, describing the planned public service programme requirement as an “infringement on the freedom to determine broadcast content”.

That view was echoed by the Guyana Press Association (GPA), which told IPI in a statement that it condemned the planned changes and would work with international groups to “convince the government of the need to halt or reverse this process given the severe consequences these amendments pose to freedom of the press and the commercial viability of private radio and television stations”.

IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis urged the Guyanese government to address criticism regarding the amendments before they become law.

“We are troubled that this bill appears to have been drafted and passed without time for sufficient consultation with all relevant stakeholders, including Guyana’s private broadcasters and local civil society groups,” Ellis said. “Elements of this legislation – in particular provisions related to the broadcasting of public service content – also raise questions about the government’s commitment to ensuring that Guyanese radio and television stations can operate independently from state and political control. We urge lawmakers to address those questions and revise these amendments as necessary.”

Tabled early last week by Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, the amendments include a provision requiring private broadcasters to allocate, free of charge, up to 60 minutes of public service programming daily. Additionally, the law would require all current broadcast license holders to reapply within 30 days or lose their right to broadcast.

While the GPA said it agreed that private broadcasters should play a role during emergencies and disasters, it highlighted the fact that the amendment would give authorities the ability to dictate time slots if they did not agree with the ones allocated by stations. Furthermore, the new legislation leaves the frequency and content of public service announcements to the discretion of the government.

The changes define a public service broadcast as “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”.

The broadcasts, which also include time for presidential addresses and disaster warnings, are to be allocated between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.

GPA told IPI the bill “will disrupt and violate contractual obligations that stations will have with advertisers and programme sponsors”, adding that it “strongly objects to the Guyana government seeking to redefine what constitutes public service programmes”.

Anand Persaud, editor-in-chief of the daily Stabroek News, told IPI that mandating the airing of what the government considers to be public service programming “unconscionably limits the freedom of operation” of private broadcasters, who have to pay broadcasting fees.

“The content of the public service programmes will invariably be political,” he commented. “It is a clear attempt by the government to promote itself.”

Opposition lawmakers in Guyana have slammed the amendments. Former President Bharrat Jagdeo, now leader of the opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP), dubbed the changes “a threat to press freedom” and said they would force broadcasters to air government propaganda. On Friday, PPP MP Gail Teixeira described the bill as “reckless, undemocratic in content, and an infringement on the rights of people”.

Prime Minister Nagamootoo defended the bill, insisting that it did not restrict press freedom but rather “lends clarity and certainty” to the powers granted to Guyana’s National Broadcasting Authority (NBA), a body established by the Broadcasting Act of 2011.

Concerns over broadcasting freedom in Guyana are not new. The Guyanese government exercised a complete radio monopoly until 2011, and critical television broadcasters were consistently denied broadcast licenses during much of the PPP’s 23-year rule from 1992 to 2015. During a 2013 visit to Guyana, IPI urged the government to ensure that the granting of television and radio licenses under the newly introduced Broadcasting Act be conducted in a transparent and impartial manner.