On August 4, Guyana’s National Assembly adopted The Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill of 2017, a piece of legislation which has drawn sharp criticism from broadcasters as well as local and regional press groups. Guyana’s President David A. Granger still has to assent to the Bill before it can take effect.
According to the government, the new legislation is meant to address the issue of illegal broadcasters who have long been operating without a license. Yet the Bill calls for all broadcasters to apply for a license within 30 days of its entry into force, a time limit that is being criticized by local and regional press freedom groups as too short. Broadcasters found operating without a license could be fined up to one million Guyanese dollars and sentenced to one year imprisonment. According to local press freedom advocates, these burdensome provisions threaten the existence of many TV and radio stations who have operated without a license since no renewals were ever issued at the time of their expiration.
Another point of contention is a provision mandating that 60 minutes of “public service programs” be broadcast on TV and radio stations between the hours of 6am and 10pm free of cost, which has been heavily criticized by the Guyana Press Association (GPA). In a statement issued last week, the GPA argued that this requirement would “disrupt and violate contractual obligations that stations will have with advertisers and program sponsors.” The GPA went on to argue that the government’s desire to define the meaning of “public service programs” would limit independence from government interference in private broadcasting.
But what is most worrying about the Bill is its process of adoption, which involved no consultations with any broadcasters, even though repeated attempts were made to meet with Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo both leading up to and during parliamentary debate last week. Nagamootoo claims that broadcasters were consulted in 2011 when the original Bill was drafted, but the legislation adopted last Friday involved several amendments for which broadcasters were never given the opportunity to provide their input.
“It would appear that the legislative process in Guyana failed to adequately address broadcasters’ concerns regarding a new law that would impact their day-to-day operations and could even threaten their existence,” said Margaux Ewen, Advocacy and Communications Director for RSF’s North America Bureau. “RSF urges President Granger not to assent to this legislation until these concerns can be addressed through meaningful consultation.”
In a statement issued Monday, the regional group Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM) called for meetings between the President and broadcasters and argued “this is the best option to avoid what may be a protracted legal matter that would be unhelpful in achieving the desired objectives of the parties concerned."
Guyana ranks 60th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.