With political will new broadcasting legislation could have been passed a decade ago
Stabroek News
January 5, 2002

Dear Editor,

A Guest Editorial published in the Stabroek News on 19th December on "Regulating the Broadcast Media" attempted to review the current situation regarding the Government's regulating the licencing of television broadcasters, offered some valid suggestions and sought to point the way forward.

Unfortunately, the public remains improperly informed about the history, the intervening politics and even now, the current circumstances surrounding the national failure to legislate a modern and relevant Broadcasting Act and appropriate regulations. The Stabroek News Guest. Editorial, though well intentioned, itself is misinformed and adds to the confusion.

The fact is and remains, that since Guyana became independent; the law governing broadcasting and the licencing of wireless telegraphy transmissions (that is radio and television broadcasting) is the colonial, pre independence, Post & Telegraph Act of 1804 with Wireless Telegraphy Regulations, subsequently, disjointly, amended over the years. Simply put, our broadcast laws are hopelessly inadequate to serve the public interest in the present day circumstances of telecommunications and broadcasting technological development.

Both the PNC and PPP administrations have, until now, failed to address this matter. Both felt comfortable, once in government, with state control over, rather than the regulation of broadcasting to serve the public interest.

In 1983 Tony Vieira, followed by Rex McKay, set the cat amongst the pigeons, however, when they began broadcasting for commercial purposes and relayed US satellite transmitted programmes in a completely unlicenced and unregulated manner, utilising unassigned radio frequencies.

In late 1991, the PNC established a Committee chaired by Kit Nascimento intended to produce a new Broadcasting Act and Regulations. In the meantime, licences were issued under the old legislation to Vieira and McKay. The Nascimento Committee, after holding public hearings, boycotted by the PPP, submitted an Interim Report for amending the existing Wireless Telegraphy Regulations to include the regulating of programme content, but the PNC did not act on the recommendations before losing the election in 1992.

But as long ago as 1967, Nascimento and Hugh Cholmondeley, at government's behest, had collaborated a produce a comprehensive proposal for the establishment of "The Development of a National Broadcasting System for Guyana" and, in 1969, Nascimento had drafted Broadcast Act and Explanatory Memorandum to support the proposal. Nothing resulted.

Almost 20 years later, in 1984, Nascimento was engaged as a UNESCO Consultant to carry out a comprehensive study on "The Development of a National Information and Communication Plan for Guyana". Hugh Cholmondeley was at the time the UNESCO Representative to the Caribbean. Most, if not all of this work, gathered dust on the shelves of the government.

In anticipation of privatising the Guyana Telecommunications Corporation (GTC), the Government, in 1990, established the Guyana Frequency Management Unit by Order to be known as the National Frequency Management Unit (NFMU), to take over the functions of regulating the radio frequency spectrum and assigning radio frequencies, which were previously performed by the Frequency Management Unit of the GTC. The Order gives the NFMU wide powers, assigned by the relevant Minister (now the Prime Minister), to administer the electro magnetic spectrum. It remains questionable, however, as to whether the GFMU Order is not in conflict with the provisions of the Post &Telegraph Act.

The PPP, with absolute control over radio, inherited from the PNC, but very uncomfortable with private television owners inclined to be supportive of the PNC, rapidly expanded the fledgling, experimental, state owned Guyana Television Broadcasting Company (GTBC) from the Visual Productions Centre. But the PPP soon came under pressure from their own supporters wanting to exploit the commercial bonanza from broadcasting pirated US satellite transmitted programmes. Widespread frequency squatting followed with the NFMU losing control of frequency allocations with as many as 23 unlicenced "television stations" on the air.

The government found itself in the situation of controlling radio, but having completely lost control of television and unable to regulate even the most pernicious, inflammatory, libelous and irresponsible programme material.

But the PPP made the mistake of trying to impose new broadcasting legislation drafted with the intention of controlling, rather than regulating, the television airwaves, having sought and ignored recommendations from Broadcast Consultant Rafique Khan and later a UNESCO Report by Jamaican specialist, Martin Mordecai, on a "New Broadcasting Act for Guyana". Needless to say, the television owners gathered forces to resist any new legislation seeking to dictate control over them and the drafts were abandoned.

And so with chaos on the airwaves being exploited to the fullest for political purposes, President Jagdeo in June last year (2000), chaired a seminar on "The State of Broadcasting in Guyana". The seminar appointed a Committee under the Chairmanship of Dr Prem Misir, including communications consultants Nascimento and Cholmondeley, legal consultant Hubert Rodney and representatives of the broadcasting community Tony Vieira, Godfrey Washington and Darsham Ramdani.

The Committee failed to produce a report, eventually leading to an independent Report submitted in September 2000 by Cholmondeley and Nascimento, which remains the most recent, comprehensive and definitive document on the way forward.

But, once again, party political interests intervened. In May 2001, a Joint Committee on Radio Monopoly and Non Partisan Boards was appointed from the Jagdeo/Hoyte dialogue under Co chairpersons, Gail Teixeira and Deryck Bernard. But, somehow its mandate was extended to address the entire issue of" new broadcasting legislation already comprehensively addressed in the Cholmondeley/Nascimento Report. The Joint Committee's Report, not surprisingly, given its political and non professional composition and the touchy subject of radio monopoly, is long overdue.

Compounding the confusion, the government had already under the Prime Minister, established a Committee advised by Nascimento and prominent legal draftsman Bryn Pollard, to amend the current Wireless Telegraphy Regulations to enable the licencing of the existing television broadcasters as an interim measure pending a new Broadcasting Act and Regulations. The proposed amendment included minimal regulations governing programme content.

The PNC, unaware of this development cried foul, accusing the government of undermining the mandate of the Joint Committee, even though the Joint Committee had originally been given a much more limited mandate.

However, in June, the government duly published the Amended Regulations. The Joint Committee in July then pronounced that they had no objections to the Regulations, but recommended that they include the appointment of a Broadcast Advisory Committee on whose advice the Prime Minister must act in administering the Regulations regarding programme content.

The Post & Telegraph Act does not however, permit the Minister to delegate authority in this manner. The government then, in November, amended the Amendment to appoint an Advisory Committee on Broadcasting with powers "to advise the Minister on compliance by licencees with the terms and conditions of licences or otherwise", and "to recommend to the Minister such appropriate action which may be taken including revocation of a licence, in the event of failure by a licencee to comply with the terms or conditions of the licence."

Hoyte came on board with this by jointly signing with Jagdeo a "Memorandum of Understanding" which, in contrast with and in contradiction of the amended regulations, requires "that the Minister in exercise of his power pursuant to the Act and the Wireless Telegraphy Regulations made thereunder, with respect to television Station Licences, will act in accordance with the advice tendered by the Advisory Committee on broadcasting". Needless to say, the Memorandum of Understanding has no legal force.

Independently from all of this, Cholmondeley and Nascimento urged the Prime Minister to accept that the life of the GECOM Media Monitoring Unit, professionally staffed and equipped to monitor broadcast programming, should be extended to facilitate the work of the Prime Minister and the Advisory Committee on regulating broadcast programme content. Consequently, an approach to the Canadian government to provide the financing was under favourable consideration when the government, instead, decided to allow the Unit to be wound up, the staff released and the equipment put into storage by GECOM.

The government, accepting that the Prime Minister and the Advisory Committee cannot functionally regulate programme content without a monitoring facility, have decided that the Advisory Committee, none of whom, incidentally, are professionally qualified or experienced in the area of broadcast legislation and regulations, be given the full time job of setting up and administering a Television Monitoring Unit, involving paying the members of the Committee salaries amounting to some G$800,000 per month and having to purchase the necessary monitoring equipment. What the GECOM will do with their equipment is a matter for conjecture.

The question is why did the government choose this option? An a

already established independent Monitoring Committee supported with Canadian financing would have cost nothing, would have enjoyed greater credibility and would have avoided employment of the Advisory Committee on a full time basis at considerable cost.

Now we hear from Cabinet Secretary, Roger Luncheon that a special Cabinet Sub Committee is deciding on the mandate of the Advisory Committee, even though the amended Wireless Telegraphy Regulations clearly and legally already define that mandate.

It is certainly not the case that Guyana is devoid of qualified professionals capable of drafting sound and relevant broadcasting legislation to take us into the 21st century. It is not that there is any absence of international precedent in law affirming the right and responsibility of Government to licence the use of the broadcast spectrum obliging the licencee to serve the public interest and convenience.

The problem is, so far unfortunately, the refusal of our political parties, in and out of office, to relinquish control, allow the professionals to get on with the job of producing legislation and to permit the appointment of an independent Broadcasting Authority with members who are knowledgeable, experienced and with recognised competence in the administration of broadcasting law and regulations.

Yours faithfully,

(Named and address supplied)