Jul 31, 2013 News
– fairer ads distribution
Almost three months after top officials of the International Press Institute (IPI) visited Guyana, that watchdog media grouping, in a report, has called on Government to begin a review of all outstanding broadcast licence applications, including those filed before the Broadcast Act took effect.
IPI also urged, in the report released Monday, that the granting of any new television and radio licences be done transparently and under the guidance of an independent Broadcast Authority.
Executive Director, Alison Bethel McKenzie; Executive Board Vice-Chair John Yearwood; and Press Freedom Adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean, Scott Griffen, were the ones who visited five Caribbean countries, including Guyana.
The IPI’s three-week visit to the region was to check on progress made by the countries to eliminate old criminal defamation laws.
While here, the IPI team met with media workers, editors and publishers, and Government officials including Prime Minister Samuel Hinds; Attorney General Anil Nandlall; and Presidential Advisor on Governance, Gail Teixeira.
There were complaints, especially by the private media, of harassment as well as the controversial and unfair manner in which former President Bharrat Jagdeo issued a number of radio licences and two for cable operations, days before he left office in November 2011.
Prominent media houses like Kaieteur News, Stabroek News and Capitol News were overlooked for radio licences.
State media intimidation
The International Press Institute, a powerful media group which comprises journalists, editors and publishers worldwide, also recommended that Government end the alleged use of state media to intimidate or harass the private press or those who disagree with its positions or actions.
There has been growing unease between the ruling party and especially private media entities after revelations that radio licences were issued to mainly close friends of the former President. Multiple frequencies were issued to the newspaper of the ruling People’s Progressive Party (PPP), to a company with close contacts with a current minister, and to a personal friend of Jagdeo.
Single frequencies were issued to a number of others in what observers say was a poorly veiled attempt to make the allocations appear to be fair and transparent.
The Opposition has also been complaining that it has been targeted in a hostile manner by the state media, including the Government Information Agency (GINA) and state TV’s National Communications Network (NCN).
The IPI, in its recommendations, also wants Government to ensure the independence of the Office of the Freedom of Information Commissioner, and provide this person with the necessary resources to do his job effectively. Former Attorney General, Charles Ramson, has been recently sworn into that position.
Along with this, the body urged that a Freedom of Information Act (whenever it is made law) must remove or specify exemptions involving the Office of the President, in line with international standards, and also, there should also be a thorough investigation, without delay, of instances of violence against the press or media installations.
According to the IPI report, government must also take steps to ensure that state advertising is distributed fairly and without regard for the particular editorial stance of a newspaper and table legislation to reform the laws to remove references to seditious libel.
Despite Kaieteur News and Stabroek News being recognized as the biggest circulated newspapers in Guyana, the IPI said it found more state ads went to the Guyana Chronicle, The Mirror and the Guyana Times, a newspaper closely linked to the administration.
Addressing the issue of the state media, the IPI noted that these must serve the interests of all
Guyanese – not just those of the government currently in power.
“In four of the five countries that IPI visited, top government leaders expressed agreement that journalists should not face prison for doing their job and that criminal defamation laws do not belong in a modern democracy,” Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said.
“While we would have liked a similarly concrete statement from the Government of Guyana, we are encouraged that officials there have decided to review the issue.”
The mission found concrete success in Trinidad and Tobago, where the Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar, at a press conference with Ms. Bethel McKenzie, announced that a Bill partially decriminalising defamation would be sent to Parliament. In the Dominican Republic, the Attorney General informed IPI of an official decision to replace the country’s authoritarian-era press law with a modern statute that would include the elimination of all prison sentences for defamation; and in Antigua and Barbuda, Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer committed to repealing criminal defamation before the end of his current term.
The IPI’s campaign and the mission in particular were prompted by concern that criminal defamation laws could be used by prominent figures to negate critical opinion and smother investigations into alleged wrongdoing in order to protect their economic and political interests.
According to IPI research, all independent states in the Caribbean have criminal defamation laws on their books that establish a penalty of at least one year in prison. Six—including Antigua and Barbuda, Suriname, and the Dominican Republic—have applied these laws against journalists in the past 15 years.
Regarding the media, the IPI urged for more training and the strengthening of the Guyana Press Association as a vessel for defending journalists’ rights and safeguarding ethical standards.
It was also stressed that, “Media houses should also take steps to produce content that is balanced and free of political bias with care taken not to insert a political slant during the editorial process.”
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