With government failing to keep many deadlines it set itself for the enactment of long overdue Broadcast and Freedom of Information Legislation, President Bharrat Jagdeo committed to yet another timeline yesterday.
“As soon as Parliament comes out of recess, the Freedom of Information Act and Broadcast legislation will be passed…will be passed in the next session,” Jagdeo told reporters at the Guyana International Convention Centre where he had scheduled a meeting with cable operators.
The Parliamentary recess will be over on October 10, 2010. This is two months shy of the August deadline Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs Charles Ramson committed to in April.
The Prime Minister’s Office was tasked with spearheading the crafting of Broadcast Legislation, while the Office of the President was dealing with the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, Ramson had said. President Jagdeo holds the portfolio of Minister of Information.
The Broadcasting Bill is seen as key to the issuance of TV licences and to break the monopoly on radio. The government owns and controls the country’s lone radio station, National Communications Network, under whose operation the government-run TV station falls.
Jagdeo said yesterday he did not see a need for another TV station, though he said he would be willing to consider an educational channel, free of political and other content.
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.
Last 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.
Lindeners, Norman Chapman and Mortimer Yearwood, had taken the government to court to be issued with 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 TV and radio licences, 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 licences 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 ensure 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 time, 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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