'Not in our mandate to sanction,' says advisory committee
Stabroek News
May 17, 2002

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The Advisory Committee on Broadcasting (ACB) yesterday refused to pronounce on the propriety of the airing of a videotaped message from prison escapee Andrew Douglas saying it was not in its mandate.

The statement came in the wake of a growing view that penalising errant broadcasters was well within the remit of the body which was set up out of the now suspended dialogue between President Bharrat Jagdeo and PNC/R leader Desmond Hoyte.

Douglas' tape was aired on VCT Channel 28, WRHM Channel 7 and NBTV Channel 9 last week. Douglas and four other men broke out of jail on February 23 killing a prison guard and critically injuring another in the process. There were serious concerns expressed publicly that it was offensive and unacceptable for the TV stations to broadcast the statement of this criminal and there were calls for the ACB to address the matter.

In a statement it issued yesterday, the committee said, "much of Guyana's daily television is offensive. Much is accusatory, contentious and inflammatory.

"If the ACB were to do the bidding of complainants in relation to sanctions against stations, we would become, simply another combative force in the melee. This is not our intention or mandate."

For those reasons the committee said, "we will not pronounce on the broadcast of a tape recording by a `Wanted Man' last week by television stations last week. Interestingly enough some of the very comments in the media about the broadcast, falls [sic] into the same category as the broadcast itself, in terms of professionalism, or lack thereof."

The committee reiterated that it was "a force for moral suasion, technical and professional improvement and a catalyst for placing `ethics' high on the agenda of the broadcast industry in Guyana."

The line taken by the committee would have fallen below the expectations of Prime Minister Sam Hinds and Cabinet Secretary, Dr Roger Luncheon, both of whom in public statements had expected that it would recommend sanctions to be applied against television stations, which aired the tape. However, the ACB position seems to be in line with what co-chair of the Joint Committee on Radio Monopoly and Non Partisan Boards, Deryck Bernard, believes is its mandate.

Bernard's committee was one which had been set up via the dialogue between President Jagdeo and Hoyte. Bernard yesterday welcomed the ACB's refusal to be pressured though he had not seen or heard the statement save for the excerpts read to him by Stabroek News.

In a statement on the issue last week, Prime Minister Hinds said he had received "a number of calls and complaints from individuals who were very upset that the taped message was aired" and he "urged them to forward their concerns to the ACB" and "demand an inquiry, a review, and a pronouncement and any recommendation to the minister."

However, he said that the issue of sanctioning the stations "rests with the ACB to advise him on making a judgment call" and that one course of action could be the revocation of the stations' licences.

Luncheon, at his press briefing earlier in the week also weighed in, threatening appropriate sanctions against the televisions stations that aired the tape, and describing their actions as unacceptable and abhorrent and a criminal aggravation.

Bernard explained that the ACB was intended to foreshadow the independent Broadcast Authority, which the planned legislation was to establish.

He stressed that it was not intended to be a watchdog but to promote self-regulation by the industry and then to hold the industry to the standards, which it had set itself. He said too that sanctions should not be the first course of action for the committee as there were other levels of intervention, including engaging the television stations in discussions.

Dr Bheri Ramsarran, a member of the committee, like Bernard had not seen the statement and declined comment beyond saying the ACB was intended to "nudge broadcasters and television owners in a healthy direction and help to defuse situations that could aggravate tension and undermine national cohesion."

The ACB asserted that "in establishing the ACB political and civil leaders expressed their commitment to pursue and support a professional and sustainable approach to improving the broadcast industry in Guyana. If they needed pronouncements and mere punitive action against television licensees, they would not have chosen to establish a committee with an advisory mandate."

The statement went on to explain that the committee was "committed to facilitate the setting and maintenance of high standards for the industry, through acquainting ourselves with the challenges facing licensees, and catalysing the strengthening of organisations established by the industry to improve itself.

In this regard, the ACB will identify opportunities for peer networking and exposure to best practices in the television broadcast industry."

The committee noted that in the pursuit of its mandate, "we consult beyond the industry." It has canvassed and valued highly the "views of the print media, consumer organisations, other non-governmental organisations and civil society in general."

The statement added that the ACB "did not replace the Director of Public Prosecutions, the police or the civil court system. We are happy to report that those institutions were left intact despite the formation of the ACB".

Douglas and his four accomplices are considered armed and dangerous and have generated fear and unease in society as a result of some of the activities in which they are said to have been involved.

Earlier yesterday, Opposition Leader Hoyte had criticised the government for what he described as an attempt to pre-empt a decision by the ACB.

"It's quite wrong and absurd for people to be telling the ACB what decision to arrive at. I hope the ACB takes a strong stance and ignores the moves to influence it," Hoyte told reporters yesterday.

He pointed out that before the committee had made a determination on the matter, government had already come to a conclusion not only about culpability but also sanctions.

"I don't buy that. I'm totally opposed to this prejudging of the issue. I hope the ACB will send out a strong message to all those people that it is not just a rubber stamp, because it was not intended to be so."

The ACB is a bi-partisan committee comprising chairman Pat Dial, nominated by President Jagdeo and members Ronald Case, nominated by the Opposition Leader, and Carlton James, nominated by the private sector.