A good comeback
July 1, 2002
While the Advisory Committee on Broadcasting (ACB) blundered very early on in its existence by not pronouncing on the airing of the Andrew Douglas tape by several TV stations, it has now retrieved the situation somewhat by finding seven TV stations guilty of breaching their licences and recommending penalties to Prime Minister Hinds.
We commend the ACB on this perceptible shift in its stance. It had unfortunately painted itself into a corner by not exercising its mandate in respect of the Douglas tape, the airing of which was menacing and a breach of sound judgement. If the ACB did not pronounce on a broadcast that caused so much anxiety and sowed the seeds of racial discord what else mattered? How could it justify dealing with any other issue, no matter how serious? Moreover, its legislative underpinning required it to tender advice to the minister responsible for broadcasting (Hinds) where there might have been a breach of the conditions of a licence.
By censuring channels 6, 7, 9, 11, 14, 18 and 28 the ACB has now rehabilitated its image and sent a message to the public that it is serious about the important task it has been entrusted with: ensuring that the broadcast spectrum is not polluted by inflammatory, seditious, racially divisive and hate speech. But, there is still much for the ACB to do.
As an adherent to the view that the broadest interpretation possible should be given to the fundamental free speech right, it pains this newspaper to acknowledge that quite a lot of what is carried on some TV stations is beyond the pale and deadly to a struggling democracy like ours. Some of the samples selected by the ACB support this point.
In one of the more outrageous ones, a woman "reported" on CNS Channel Six's Sunrise Show that President Jagdeo had advocated the killing of Mr Sharma, the owner of the TV station. Mr Sharma then reiterated this statement treating it as a fact. On Channel 9 on June 13, talk show host Tacuma Ogunseye stereotyped "Black people as using violence against Black people" and charged that "extra-judicial killings and intimidating and punishing African communities (were) part of the PPP's political agenda". In the call-in segment that followed, the ACB said "callers consistently advocated murder of policemen and their families". That imprecation in the current lawless environment where five policemen have been shot dead and several others injured is patently criminal and unacceptable on the public airwaves.
The conditions of the licence which the ACB is expected to monitor include a responsibility on the part of the licencee to ensure that nothing is broadcast which offends "good taste or decency or is likely to encourage or incite racial hatred or incite to crime or to lead to public disorder or to be offensive to public feeling". The two examples cited above clearly transgress the conditions of the licence.
There are other important conditions including the need for impartiality and accuracy in news programmes and preventing the abuse of religious beliefs.
So clearly there must be oversight of the broadcast spectrum and this is the task the ACB is supposed to discharge. Some of the offending broadcasts may be attributable to the poor level of skills that all parts of the media (including the print media) have to grapple with but many of them are being introduced with malice aforethought to create and foster political, social and racial unrest. The ACB will soon be able to separate the two camps.
Those who are warned and mend their ways will clearly be distinguished from the inveterate breakers of the law and sowers of discord. The stations that allow the latter variety of broadcasts will then have to face the penalty. It is not only the producer and the talkshow host who is responsible for the content of the programming but also the station and the licensee. It is the licensee who will suffer the penalty of suspension or revocation of licence. Only when a station endures one of these penalties will the message hit home that responsible broadcasting in the current conditions is an absolute imperative.
The examples the ACB has cited straddle the political spectrum and encompass a variety of popular broadcasts. The message is that all sides are transgressing and if the work of the ACB is to be taken seriously then changes have to be made across the board. Since the ACB is functioning under the authority of the President and the Opposition Leader it should be smooth sailing in the implementation of its advice. Several of the stations are to be warned by the Prime Minister that a further transgression could result in the suspension or the revocation of their licence. The ACB should hold firmly to this and act on complaints it receives from the public or transgressions it detects itself during its normal course of monitoring.
The broadcast industry has led a charmed life with numerous promises to be responsible littering the TV landscape. The most recent was the gross violation of the Media Code of Conduct for the 2001 elections that was drawn up and signed by many of the stations who later flaunted it vulgarly. We need a change from the irresponsibility that has been prevalent on the broadcast spectrum; it has done and is doing enormous damage. Hopefully the ACB can influence major changes in the way TV stations exercise their great responsibility.