The Advisory Committee on Broadcasting under the law must tender advice when asked for it by the Prime Minister
Stabroek News
May 30, 2002

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Dear Editor,

I write to congratulate Stabroek News (25.5.02) for an excellent editorial about the broadcast of a video tape from escaped prisoner Andrew Douglas by three of our television stations.

The Advisory Committee on Broadcasting (ACB) ap-pointed by the President and with members nominated by the President, the Leader of the Opposition and the Private Sector Committee, has refused to tender advice specifically asked for by the Prime Minister as to whether stations broadcasting the tape as part of their programme had complied with the conditions under which they are licensed.

The ACB, however, is given no discretion by the law under which it is appointed in this matter once the Prime Minister requests its advice. The Commit-tee's function and only function, unless otherwise re-quested by the Prime Minister, is "to advise the Minister on compliance by licensees with the terms and conditions of licences" and "to recommend to the Minister such appropriate action which may be taken including revocation of a licence."

The ACB, under the law, must, therefore, tender advice when it is asked for by the Prime Minister or resign or be dismissed by the President for failing to perform its duly appointed function.

Clearly, the broadcast in question has become a matter of considerable public concern. Its content raises a number of questions with regard to compliance with the conditions of the licences issued for the operation of a television broadcasting station upon which the ACB can reasonably be asked to advise the Prime Minister. For instance:

* were the stations concerned in compliance with the requirement to "ensure that nothing is included in programmes which... is likely to encourage or incite racial hatred"?

* were the stations in compliance with the requirement "to ensure that nothing is included in programmes which are likely to... incite to crime or lead to public disorder or to be offensive to public feeling"?

* were the stations in compliance with the requirement that "the licensee, acting reasonably and in good faith shall ensure that any news given (in whatever form) in the programmes of the licensee is presented with due accuracy and impartiality"?

In these circumstances, it is the ACB's function to judge whether reasonable people, applying contemporary standards of our society, would not conclude that the stations concerned have or have not complied with these conditions of their licence.

The Prime Minister under the law does not, in fact, have to be advised in order to act nor does he have to act on the advice he is given. He may judge for himself and act accordingly.

The Prime Minister is, however, politically bound to honour the Memorandum of Understanding signed by President Bharrat Jagdeo and Opposition Leader Desmond Hoyte on 7th November, 2001, which specifically requires that he "will act in accordance with the advice tendered by the Advisory Committee on Broadcasting." The Memorandum effectively ties his hands politically.

It is precisely because of this Memorandum, designed to stay the independent hand of the Prime Minister given him under the law, that an even greater obligation is placed upon the ACB to carry out the only function for which it is appointed and is paid to perform, namely, to advise the Prime Minister on the compliance with the law by the licensees.

It seems to me that should the ACB continue to refuse to perform its function, the obligation is on the President to dismiss the Committee and consult with the Leader of the Opposition (because of the Memorandum) in appointing a new Committee.

Yours faithfully,

Kit Nascimento