There is an ongoing debate about the fairness of the elections coverage of the fully state-owned National Communications Network (NCN). The debate began with concerns being expressed about NCN’s coverage, via social media, of Nomination Day proceedings.
It is alleged that NCN gave one hour of live streaming to the ruling Coalition, but only one minute to the Opposition People’s Progressive Party. There is no need to ask whether this was fair.
NCN when confronted with its imbalanced coverage made a dubious defence by contending that it is a broadcasting agency and not a telecommunications agency, implying that live streaming is a telecommunications function and not a broadcasting function.
But what does that have to do with fairness?
Regardless of whether it is broadcasting or providing telecommunication feeds, NCN has an obligation to be fair. The distinction between broadcasting and telecommunications matters not, because this does not absolve the NCN from ensuring fairness and balance in its coverage.
NCN’s explanation is silly. Transmission on the internet is generally considered as telecommunications rather than broadcasting, but when a social media platform is used, then the communication loses its point-to-point character and becomes one-to-many transmission, and therefore falls within the remit of broadcasting. Streaming on a social media platform such as Facebook is therefore considered as broadcasting and not simply telecommunications.
NCN therefore cannot seek refuge in the distinction between telecommunications and broadcasting, because NCN is a licensed broadcaster and not a telecommunications provider. If NCN is implying that its transmission on Nomination Day via streaming was telecommunications, then it should be asked from where it derives its license as a provider of telecommunication services.
But why does the distinction matter when it comes to NCN? After all, should it not have the same standards for streaming that it has for what it considers as broadcasting? In other words, should it not ensure equitable time for all parties – government and opposition?
Those aggrieved by NCN’s imbalanced coverage – whether streaming or otherwise – of the various political parties, have no recourse to the Guyana National Broadcasting Authority (GNBA). The GNBA is empowered with regulating, supervising and developing broadcasting in consonance with the broadcasting policy set out under Section 19 of the Broadcasting Act. Unfortunately, that policy does not make accommodation for the state-owned media to provide for balanced political coverage.
The GNBA, however, does have the authority to issue rules, guidelines and standards concerning broadcasting. It is not too late for the GNBA to insist that the state-owned media provide balanced coverage and allot time for party broadcasts to both the Opposition, and to the smaller parties.
The GNBA hardly needs any prompting in this regard. Observer Missions to Guyana’s elections in the past have made reference to the equitable access to the state-owned media. The Report of the Observer Mission of the Organization of American States had reported that some political parties felt that the governing party, then the PPPC, enjoyed an unfair advantage in this regard.
In its report on the 2015 elections, the Carter Centre noted the media’s emasculation of smaller parties. The report observed that although six parties participated in the elections, the two largest parties dominated the media coverage.
It is not too late for both the GNBS and NCN to put things right. It is not asking too much for GNBS to devise a policy of equitable coverage to all political parties, big and small. It is not too late for NCN to allocate, equitably, broadcast time to the ruling coalition and to the PPPC, and to ensure that it provides balanced coverage to political rallies and meetings.
It is not too late for these things to happen. But do not hold your breath. We are living in a country in which all manner of justifications can be found for not doing what is expected.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper)
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