The long-awaited, overdue Freedom of Information (FOI) and Broadcasting Bills, are finally expected to be tabled in Parliament by August the latest, a government official says.
Responding to questions last week on how soon, Minister of Legal Affairs, Attorney General, Charles Ramson, said that the Broadcasting Bill is still on the desk of the Prime Minister, Sam Hinds. Ramson noted that the Bills do not fall under his office. The FOI is being considered by the Office of the President, he said.
Since last year, the tabling of the two Bills has been a bone of contention for the parliamentary opposition and critics alike.
The Broadcasting Bill is key to the issuance of TV and radio licences to waiting applicants. Government is saying that it is unwilling to until there are regulations to fully govern this broadcast spectrum.
With many complaining of difficulties to access information about government contracts and other similar matters, the FOI is a crucial bill that is expected to make it illegal to withhold information.
In December, Chief Justice (ag) Ian Chang, in a High Court ruling, ordered that the National Frequency Management Unit (NFMU) speedily grant broadcast licences to those who want to broadcast in Linden and in Region Ten, putting more pressure on the quick realisation of the Broadcasting Legislation.
Lindeners, Norman Chapman and Mortimer Yearwood, had taken the government to court to be issued television licences.
Chang ruled that the rights of citizens under Article 146 of the Constitution cannot be abridged based on an agreement made between President Bharrat Jagdeo and Opposition Leader Robert Corbin.
In 2003, the two, by means of a signed communiqué, had agreed that no new licences would be granted until Broadcast legislation has been enacted. The process should have taken a year.
Chapman and Yearwood had moved to the High Court, prior to the 2006 General Elections, claiming that their fundamental rights were being breached by their not being able to have radio or TV broadcasts other than from state-owned radio and television.
Yearwood had applied to the NFMU for a TV and radio licence, because of the obvious need in Linden for an extension in electronic media services.
However, in response to his application, the Managing Director of the NFMU, Valmiki Singh, had informed him that his application would be placed on file and would come up for consideration at such point as sufficient progress would have been made with respect to the enactment of broadcast legislation in the area of the reform and modernisation of the telecommunications sector.
Singh said that both the legislation and the telecommunications modernisation project would set out guidelines for the granting of licences, including details such as frequencies and channels to be assigned, geographic locations, power of transmitters, and the broadcasting standards to be used.
Singh said that failure to resolve these matters before the issue of new licences could result in serious technical difficulties and inefficient usage of the electromagnetic spectrum.
The Chief Justice ruled that to deny the granting of new licences under the claims by the NFMU was a violation of Article 146 of the Constitution, which states that “No person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression, that is to say, freedom to hold opinions without interference, freedom to receive ideas and information without interference, freedom to communicate ideas and information without interference, and freedom from interference with his correspondence.”
Leader of the main opposition party, the PNCR, Robert Corbin, who signed a communiqué freezing the issuance of licenses in May 2003, said the legislation should have come four months after that signing.
During that debate, Presidential Advisor and Member of Parliament, Gail Teixeira, had told the House that the Administration was willing to look away from the communiqué and commence the issuance of licences.
This prompted an expression of alarm from Corbin.
His concern was with the fact that Government would now seek to distance itself from the communiqué signed between him and President Bharrat Jagdeo in 2003, which froze the issuance of licences until legislation was put in place.
Corbin added that to be able to issue licences ‘as is’ is exactly what the Government wanted. The communiqué, according to Corbin, sought to assure that there was no political consideration before issuing licences.
“That is why there was a restriction…We wanted to remove political discussion in the issuance of licences.”
According to Corbin, the freeze on the issuance of licences was supposed to have been for four months, within which the broadcast legislation would have been effected. He emphasised that he insisted on the four-month freeze to ensure that the Government did not use the period to issue numerous licences to those it preferred, hence transforming the broadcast authority into “a rubber stamp”.
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