Broadcasting Committee should fine TV stations heavily, not withdraw their licences
Stabroek News
May 14, 2002

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Dear Editor,

The Advisory Committee on Broadcasting (ACB) investigation into the acquisition and airing of an audio-video recording of one of the so-called Gang of Five prison escapees, with the likelihood of possibly suspending or revoking the licenses of the television stations which aired the recording may be yet another offshoot of what originally was a jailbreak. The other offshoots so far are the criminal marauding of society and the eventual implication of political involvement in it all.

If the ACB ever suspends or revokes the stations' licenses based on this recent airing, it could raise the specter of a return to the days of state censorship of information dissemination or it could lead to a lengthy and nasty court battle in the name of free information. And the Guyana Government certainly does not want to be seen as eliminating the medium because there is disagreement with a messenger and his message, as distasteful as both have been.

For the ACB to make any decision to punish the stations, it first has to find a law or rule the stations broke or violated. The ACB should not become or be seen to become a political tool to stifle freedom of expression or the right to information, particularly in a crime-based issue.

What started out almost three months ago as a jailbreak by five deadly prisoners is now turning out to be a political crisis of confidence for the government, as it grows red faced with every passing day that the five escapees have not been apprehended. To boot, the five certainly seem to be receiving logistical and humanitarian support, even as the wider society continues to live in an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty of them and their possible network.

True, government needs all the support it can get from every person or group to deal with this deviancy, and this includes those media houses whose job it is to disseminate information in a timely and accurate way, while being responsible when dealing with highly sensitive information; especially information related to internal safety.

However, government must accept there is a limit to which it allows itself to pressure media houses that depend on information as their primary resource to stay in business, knowing that this information can come in any form or shape, and from any source. This is not to say there is no need for rules and punitive or remedial actions to deal with media houses which encourage violence in the name of protests, or which mislead or misinform people.

Specifically speaking of the aired video recording purportedly showing one of the prison escapees, attired in army camouflage, and reading from a scripted sheet of paper is, at worst, a poor judgment call on the part of media house owners. But they broke no known laws so there should be no legal basis for the arrest or detention of any media practitioner or television station owner, or the suspension or revocation of licenses in this particular flap.

When media houses in America aired one of the first post-September 11 Osama bin Laden video recordings, the American Government was somewhat incensed that media houses were not sensitive to the potential messages his remarks could be sending to members of his entity's global network. The American Government asked media houses to exercise restraint in any future considerations. No one was arrested nor detained. The FCC neither suspended nor revoked any company's licenses. I draw this reference to point out that those media houses in Guyana, while nowhere near their American counterparts in a few respects, and while being urged to be sensitive, still have a responsibility to ensure the dissemination of timely and accurate information.

Some media houses and practitioners seemed to have crossed the line a long time ago in an effort to win opinion or give their perspective, but there is a limit to lies and biases people will listen to and, sooner or later, people will find better alternatives for news and information.

Government, meanwhile, may be worried the guy in army fatigues may be sending a message, but this worry has to be sorted out on a political/security level, not by going after any medium or conduit through which such a message could be sent. In such a sparsely populated nation, who needs television stations to send messages to execute any heinous crimes?

Government certainly will want to know who was responsible for the recording, so it could locate those in the know who, in turn, could lead to the apprehension of at least one, if not all, of the escapees. At this juncture, media houses have an ethical obligation to let government know how or from whom they obtained the tape. Was it sent to them anonymously? Did a third party arrange for them to obtain it?

There is no argument, in light of current events, that just seeing and hearing one of the prison escapees in a video recording is a development worthy of the news, just as it news worthy to hear him explain why he helped engineer his prison breakout: prolonged incarceration with no trial?

His explanation does not justify his action, whether it was the killing in his escape bid or participating in post-escape deadly criminal attacks in society.

And he, like his cohorts, should turn himself in to the police. They all are entitled to due legal process, regardless of what wider society may think of them, and due process should guarantee them a fair trial in which their sentences should be commensurate with their heinous actions. Those responsible for aiding and abetting them and others of their ilk should get ready for long jail sentences, too.

Having said all of that, I conclude by expressing the view that media houses, which violate clearly stated rules and regulations governing their operations, should receive fines, the severity of which can be determined by the severity of their infractions. Fines can be increased with each repeat infraction. Persistent fines can eventually put a media house out of business without license suspension or revocation.

Media practitioners, who also should be licensed, should be fined for violating rules and regulations. License suspension or revocation should not be the first go-to option, except in cases where there is overwhelming evidence a violation is irreparably damaging to the industry or imperils society's safety or compromises national security.

Yours faithfully,

Emile Mervin