Sunday, April 13, 2008

Hypocrisy and double-standards of Caribbean Media

Dear Editor

I am being charitable to the Caribbean Media by not agreeing with my friend from Ozone Park, Queens, who describes the Caribbean media as "racist". He asked which Caribbean country will allow someone to go on TV and threaten to kill the Head of State? Not once, but twice. Well, the truth is I can't see it happening in the New York where I live. The media here are much more responsible than Sharma's CNC in Guyana; they will not allow any crazy kook to go on aair threatening the President of the Unites States or for that matter, any politician.

I doubt that would be allowed in Trinidad, or Barbados, or some of the smaller islands that are still British colonies. Jamaica? Maybe, but I don't think so. Anyway, the TV station's license in Guyana was suspended for four months. You would not believe the hypocrisy and double-standards of Caribbean media who let loose a fusillade against the Guyanese government, screaming and whining about 'freedom of the Press', blah blah blah.

Recently, they were screaming about Stabroek News not getting ads from the government. Now, friends, you tell me if all the media in Trinidad are allocated same number of Government ads. Everyone knows 95.5fm is the 'official' lottery station and gets more ads than most radio stations; Newsday is the favored newspaper, getting more ad than other print media. Indian-oriented radio stations receive less.

Someone should have a friendly chat with these hypocritical Caribbean media about thei disgraceful anti-Guyana Government stance while they ignore imbalances in their homeland. Like I said, I don' think they are racist by attacking the Indian-based Government in Guyana. I give them the doubt that they are honourable men and women.

Fortunately, we have some journalists with integrity and honour, with the testicular fortitude to go against the hypocritical stance of the majority of Caribbean media. See below for Rickey Singh's article "MEDIA ABUSE AND FREEDOM", KAIETEUR NEWS' Editorial and Columns, and letters published in the Guyanese media. Oh no, not the Stabroek News, they are now the unofficial mouthpiece of the Opposition and are rabidlty anti-Government, anti-Jagdeo.

How many of these self-righteous Guyanese media would have been allowed to rant and rave under the Burnham dictatorial Mugabesque regime? No, they are not racist, they simply can't live with a Government lawfully and legally elected by the Guyanese people, a government that just so happens to be supported by the majority of Indo-Guyanese while the anti-Government media is more than 75% Afro-Guyanese.

I urge you to be objective: don't listen only to the PNC lackeys and anti-Jagdeo marhcing band in the Guyanese and Caribbean media; there are many other journalists in Guyana, or who know of Guyana, with the real story. I am sure the Caribbean media, including the Trinidad Express, will print this letter and Rickey Singh's column, who is carried regularly in the EXPRESS newspaper.

Richard Seecharan
Caribbean Center for Democracy and Social Justice, Intl.
Queens, New York

Guyana Chronicle, Sunday April 13, 2008
An Editorial Viewpoint
IN GUYANA, following the political culture of party paramountcy that smothered press freedom, there has evolved, over the years, the twin problem of gross abuse by the private media in opposition to government's policies and programmes and, on the other hand, sycophantic misuse of state media to propagandise achievements.

Much of these scenarios are often played out primarily in the electronic media sector where what passes for "television networks" operate in a virtual wildwest atmosphere. The anti-government media bawl 'foul play', when challenged by reports in state media, and both often engage in a mix of arrogance and poor professional judgement. The ultimate losers in the process are, of course, the Guyanese people who are quite familiar with examples.

Regrettably, media organisations representing practitioners of the journalism profession get caught up emotionally in the cross-fire between the government and the private sector media. A common cry is of "denial of press freedom".

With next month's observance of "World Press Freedom Day" (May 3)--an occasion designated by the United Nations to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the media--we will no doubt be treated to some old and new developments in Guyana and elsewhere about media freedom and responsibility.

This past week in Guyana came news about the resumption of public sector advertisements to the Stabroek News. It is a welcome development, though no official explanation was offered up to the time of writing.

It's quite likely that no such official explanation may be forthcoming, particularly as it was never publicly announced when the actual crude implementation of decision to suspend the flow of ads was taken 17 months ago--to the benefit of another privately owned newspaper.

Then followed announcement of the decision by President Bharrat Jagdeo (also Minister responsible for Communication) to suspend, for four months, effective from midnight yesterday, the licence under which "CNS Channel 6" has been operating by its owner, businessman and politician Chandra Narine Sharma.

The action followed recommendations from the Advisory Committee on Broadcasting (ACB) that had investigated a highly inflammatory "Voice of the People" programme on Channel 6. There were subsequent invitations to Sharma, first by Dr Roger Luncheon, Head of the Presidential Secretariat, and later by the President himself, to discuss infringements of the licence granted Channel 6 and to show cause why sanctions should not be taken, including suspension of licence.

The transcript of the relevant offensive claim of "incitement to crime" with a specific threat by a caller to "kill (President) Jagdeo", was released to the local and regional media by GINA. The alleged "crime" was made all the worse by an unedited repeat of the relevant programme, even after the ACB had received an apology from Sharma.

Without going into details and implications of this case at this time, those who have quickly jumped to the defence of CNS Channel 6--starting, predictably, with the opposition parties--but surprisingly including also the Guyana Press Association and one editor who should know better--some attention ought to be paid to a current related controversy in Jamaica.

It is the case of recommended sanction by the Jamaica Broadcasting Commission (JBC)--the first such body to exist in CARICOM--against the "NewsTalk 93FM" radio station for transmitting "derogatory and abusive comments" by one of its talk show hosts (Kingsley Stuart) that included verbal salvos against an employee of the University of the West Indies, and failure to offer an appropriate apology.

The matter has been referred for relevant action by the Minister of Information (Olivia 'Babsy' Grange) with suspension of the station's licence as an option, but with the minister having the right to exercise discretion, depending on a written response from the management of "NewsTalk 93 FM".

A decision in this matter may be forthcoming within the next 48 hours. Those in Guyana who behave, quite expediently at times, as if developments about freedom of the press have no relevance to their own expressed local concerns and agendas, should, with some humility, restrain themselves in responding to the current case of CNS Channel 6 and the Jagdeo administration.

My column
Turning a wrong into a right

Today, I run the risk of being ostracized because I have a view that may not coincide with the rest of the crowd over the suspension of the licence of CNS 6. I may not be the best there is to argue a point and I am not going to fool myself that I am a paragon of virtue but I must add my two cents here because on Friday night I saw many of my colleagues rushing to support Mr. Chandra Narine Sharma in the wake of the revocation of the licence for his television station.
As I sat at Kaieteur News trying to put the Saturday paper to bed, I watched some of my media colleagues making their appearance on the CNS 6 screen and condemning the suspension. There were those reporters and other staff members who know me very well and know that I am never one to shy away from a confrontation, especially if I believe that the person at the receiving end is being victimized. They jokingly asked me why was I not at CNS 6, knowing fully well that I still had the paper to put to bed.
Overwhelmingly my colleagues contended that President Bharrat Jagdeo was wrong to order the suspension. Some contended that the penalty was too harsh and still others took the moral high ground that since the President was at the centre of the issue he should have recused himself from passing judgement against Mr. Sharma.
I am inclined to support the latter view because I firmly believe that if one is aggrieved, one is not likely to be impartial. I have been the victim of such a scenario and the pleadings got nowhere.
Early last year Justice B.S. Roy contended that I had committed contempt against him when I wrote a column questioning his ruling, or more particularly, his decision to grant an injunction against businessman Umraow. My lawyer was none other than Khemraj Ramjattan who was also the lawyer for Mr. Sharma on Friday.
While he did say to me that Justice Roy should not hear the contempt, he never made such an argument before Justice Roy because he knew that such a pleading would have fallen on deaf ears. It had happened numerous times before and in each case the judge heard the contempt. There was precedence for President Jagdeo's action and set by none other than the court.
About the President being wrong I hold the opposing view. Immediately I recalled the Super Bowl half time show during which Janet Jackson performed and inadvertently had her breast exposed. It was an accident but the people who regulate the American media landscape, even if they did think so, decided that a wrong had been committed and they were not sparing with their punishment. No amount of apology saved Janet Jackson or the television station that broadcast the show.
The fine levied against the television network would have crippled the Guyana economy and I can say nothing about Janet Jackson's punishment. There was no hue and cry by the 250 million Americans because they know the rules.
My contention is that Mr. Sharma knew the rules and therefore he should have been prepared for the sanction when it came. This may sound harsh but I am not inclined to allow my emotions to determine any issue.
Many years ago, ever since I was the Editor-in-chief with The Evening News, I often heard Mr. Anthony Vieira say that he would not be caught broadcasting any live call-in programme. He knew the angers and he took great pains to avoid the pitfalls.
In the case of Mr. Sharma, I recalled talking to him about a delayed broadcast system some seven years ago. He said that it was not necessary because the people were educated enough to know that they cannot say certain things on live television. Others of my colleagues contended that there was none, such is the level of broadcast knowledge among my colleagues.
Mr. Sharma, for all the faith in the people, ended up getting cussed with the foulest language on his own programme. That should have been a wake-up call but for some reason it wasn't. He continued along his merry way, undoubtedly working in what was for him, the masses who had no voice in the society.
Mr. Sharma has had his licence suspended before, on one occasion for one month and his move to the court did not save him. By the time it came up he was back on the air. There were also threats of suspension against HBTV Channel 9 and in one case that station had to go off the air for three days. With a measure of compassion, the people who instituted the penalty allowed the sanction to occur at a time when the station would have lost the least revenue. This was not the case with Mr. C.N. Sharma who later bemoaned the fact that he was not given adequate notice. He had advertising commitments and to be given no time to honour them would seem harsh but the legal minded people would argue that compassion is often not crucial to a decision.
I must now examine the perceived threat. The caller proclaimed that she would kill Jagdeo if anything should happen to her family. On Friday night, Mr. Sharma described her as a 78-year-old woman. The legal representatives said that the government should have gone against the caller and in my book they should have. But it is here that I see another problem. The very public would have cried shame on the government for picking on an old woman.
It happened when a woman poisoned her two children. She had killed in a most horrible way but the society felt pity for her and none other than Dr Cheddi Jagan, as President, proclaimed that the woman would not suffer the death penalty even before the case was determined in the courts.
Then there is the case of the 71-year-old woman who is accused of battering her reputed husband. Believe it or not, there were people, among them reporters, who felt that the woman should not have been charged. They would not have held the same view had the killer been a man.
Guyana is a peculiar society that tends to ignore petty wrongs until these become monsters. A boy kicks a man and the man slaps him, rest assured that the people in the vicinity would cry shame on the man. It is our penchant for ignoring the little things that has made us the complaining people we are when these things come back to haunt us.
Mr. Ramjattan said, Friday night, that the government was using a hammer to kill an ant and that may appear to be the case. Interestingly, none is disputing that Mr. Sharma broke the rules and some punishment is due. It is the severity that has people talking although I wonder whether there would not have been talk had there not been any punishment at all.
Having said all that, I must find fault with the Advisory Committee on Broadcasting. The body, on February 29, informed Mr. Sharma that he was forgiven for the broadcast on February 21 and that his apology was accepted. The committee went on to state that there would be no action for the ill-advised broadcast of the old woman's comments.
Then on March 10 the very committee decided to punish him because he had rebroadcast the offending statement on February 22 and again on February 23, long before the very committee had exonerated him. That is gross inefficiency.
The suspension issue would be talked about for some time because some people are put of a job at this time when living conditions are not any easier. I hasten to say that Mr. Sharma is not a poor man and he may consider paying the staff during the period of the suspension because when all is said and done, he is in part responsible for their unemployment.

Peeping Tom

If the order closing Channel 6 for a period was made by the President, then there is nothing that anyone can do to reverse that decision no matter how wrong, right or indifferent it may be anyone feels about that decision.
One of the lawyers supporting Mr. Sharma claimed on television that the President was breaching the law. I do not agree.
It was further suggested that in cases where the President acts ultra vires, that his constitutional immunity does not hold. I also do not agree with this point because the constitution is far from mute on this score.
The actions of the President cannot be inquired into by any court of law. As such the sanctions imposed by the President cannot be the subject of judicial review.
Article 182 of the Constitution of Guyana provides that no act done by the President shall be challenged, whether criminally or civilly, in a court of law. This speaks for itself.
The fact of the matter however is that there is no need at all for the President or his advisers to even invoke Article 182 in his defence. The President is the subject minister for communication. The subject minister has certain powers under the law amongst which is the suspension or revocation of a broadcasting license. So the President as the subject minister for communications cannot be acting ultra vires in the case of CNS Channel 6.
I equally reject the argument that the President cannot stand in judgment of himself. It has been argued that the President is the subject of the complaint made against Mr. Sharma and therefore it constitutes a clear case of bias for him to be adjudicating on the matter.
Those who advance this argument seem to have missed some important things. The first one is that the President is not the subject of the complaint. The President did not need to make a determination as to whether the statements made about him were appropriate.
Mr. Sharma through his apology to the Advisory Committee on Broadcasting (ACB) implicitly deemed the statements as inappropriate.
So there was need for the President to pronounce on the comments made about him.
The issue was not so much what was said about the President, but rather, having heard what was said, why were the comments allegedly rebroadcast. Therefore, the only issue at hand was the question of the penalty to be imposed.
In this regard, it has been argued that the ACB merely asked Mr. Sharma to apologize. I am not aware that the ACB has any such powers to impose sanctions. The ACB is merely an advisory body.
The second thing that was missed by those who claim that the President cannot sit in judgment of himself was that the President did try to have someone else hear the matter. He did ask Dr. Luncheon to deal with the issue but Mr. Sharma through his lawyers filed an objection to Dr. Luncheon hearing the matter.
So what other options were there open to the President, as the subject minister, other than to conduct the hearing himself? I hope the Guyana Press Association which through its President indicated that it was interested in an impartial and transparent process would appreciate the objection that was made when the matter was to have been heard by Dr. Luncheon.
Further, I do not agree that the President in summoning Mr. Sharma to a hearing was usurping the functions of the ACB. As indicated before, the ACB was constituted as an advisory body to the subject minister.
I am not aware that the ACB has any standing in the law but I am subject to correction. Even if however it does, the ACB is not the adjudicating body. Those powers are vested in the subject minister who is advised by the ACB but who is not compelled to go along with this advice.
The ACB, it must be recalled, emerged out of discussions between former leader of the PNCR, Desmond Hoyte and President Jagdeo. The ACB came about because of the fears that the powers granted to the subject minister in the wireless laws could be used in an arbitrary manner. Those powers, as is known, give the subject minister the right to suspend or revoke the licenses of television stations.
Hoyte was interested in ensuring a fair process and of ensuring that the subject minister would not use these powers at his whim and fancy. Thus, it was agreed that when it comes to applying sanctions for alleged violations, the subject minister would be advised by the ACB. Whether this was implemented in law, I am still not certain.
The agreement between Hoyte and Jagdeo provided for the opposition to recommend one of the persons on the ACB. But it must also be clear that person does not represent the PNCR. That person is there in his professional capacity.
It is a similar situation with the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM). The opposition nominates some commissioners but this does not mean that those persons are opposition representatives.
The ACB was constituted by Hoyte and the government as an advisory body to the subject minister. However, later when a television station aligned to the PNC was taken off the air for a few days, the PNCR by its public pronouncements de-recognized the very ACB that it helped establish.
During that episode, the PNCR was highly critical of the ACB and it was surprising that as part of the defence of Mr. Sharma, the PNCR referred to the admonitions of the ACB.
As things stand, therefore, the only issue having regards to the apologies offered by Mr. Sharma was the nature of the sanctions to be imposed on his station.
The station will now be off the air for four months. Those who say this is too harsh should therefore indicate whether they would have agreed with a lesser penalty. But in so far as to whether the President acted within his powers, there can be no doubt that he did.

Sunday April 13m, 2008

Consistency is the key
The decision by President Bharrat Jagdeo to suspend the licence of CNS 6 has been the talking point ever since that station went off the air at midnight on Friday last. There have been a lot of legal pronouncements, and even laymen have been arguing law as they see it.
One argument is that the President had no locus standi to effect the suspension, given that there was no recommendation from the Advisory Committee on Broadcasting for such a suspension.
Indeed, the Advisory Committee is merely what the name suggests—advisory. There can be no stipulation, therefore, that the advice must be accepted, as is so often the case with most advice proffered by people entrusted with such a task. The argument, therefore, is that if there is no advice then there should be no action.
It would suggest, therefore, that those people who have been appointed to advise the President are the people who must dictate whether he acts or not. But in no part of the world must the tendering of advice precipitate action. Life does not operate that way, and surely no people, having voted for a leader, would expect that leader to act only when he is advised to do so.
The guideline that governs the ACB clearly states that the ACB would act on complaints from the public and would make a determination, then advise the Minister of Information about the recommendation for execution. By the same token, the Minister, of his own volition, could be a complainant.
No law would recommend that the complainant under such circumstances, report to the ACB, which would then listen to the complaint and then make a recommendation to the very complainant for determination.
The complainant this time around was President Bharrat Jagdeo who, because he was the aggrieved party, opted to have his Cabinet Secretary determine the issue. The person against whom the complaint was made decided to move to the courts, precluding the Cabinet Secretary from hearing the matter on the grounds that he had no locus standi.
This meant that the President, who is also the Minister of Information, was made to act in that capacity; and act he did, much to the annoyance of sections of the society, to the extent that people are citing social reasons.
What must be taken into account here is the fact that a wrong was committed and there was action, no matter how harsh that action may be. Harsh actions invariably hurt people, and there is bound to be some fallout.
When all is said and done, the real problem appears to be the application of double standards. A prevailing view is that justice is not dispensed evenly, and it is here that one must now call on the relevant authorities to ensure that justice must not only appear to be done, but must be done in a manner that the same punishment for the same offence is meted out to the errant individual or group.
This time around, the errant broadcaster is CNS 6 and that station has been dealt with condignly. One is now left to wonder whether similar condign action would have been taken against a broadcasting entity that might have committed a similar breach.
Make no mistake, there have been some serious breaches of the broadcast licences by all and sundry who accommodate live call-in programmes. Some of the vilest language could be heard on stations dubbed as entities that openly support the Government, and one cannot at any time recall any sanction—at least a sanction to which the public was privy.
To make matters even worse, things are such that rumours begin to surface. One rumour was that armed ranks had surrounded the home of Mark Benschop because he dared to call in to CNS 6 in the wake of the report of the closure. This was not true but it surely highlighted the way in which people see the Government acting against its critics or those perceived to be perennial critics.
If justice is dispensed fairly then there would be no such rumours and feelings of ill will and charges such as we are hearing at this time. Perhaps no one has gone on any station with a threat to kill anyone; perhaps that threat was what provoked the suspension.
It is time that there be consistent approaches to breaches of the regulations.

Sharma was ill advised
The decision by CNS Channel 6 owner and host of the 'Voice of the People' programme, CN Sharma to go to the courts to cancel a meeting called by the Head of the Presidential Secretariat with him was ill advised.

The meeting as I understand it, was called for Sharma to show cause why his license should not be revoked or suspended following remarks made by a caller to one of his live shows a few weeks ago.

I was listening to that programme and from the response that Sharma gave to the caller, I am of the opinion that he knew that he was in trouble immediately as the caller uttered the damaging statement.

Sharma is no dunce; he may not be very proficient in his articulation, but he 'knows where it's at'. He even went as far to apologise after the caller was cut off. So, why the big fuss now?

As far as I am aware the Government or Bharrat Jagdeo has never made any attempt to close down Channel 6 or have his programme pulled off the air. With the number of infringements being committed daily on that channel it would be the easiest thing to have the license suspended and or revoked.

I have heard persons being vilified, abused and threatened on that channel, some by name and some by their designation and place of employment. There seems to be no attempt at 'quality control' so persons do and say as they please in the name of freedom of expression.

It is not uncommon for you to hear persons threatening senior public officers by telling them that "I will put you on Sharma." Sharma and the Management of the channel need to be weary of this. This could also backfire on them.

There is a movie by the name of 'Some Times in April' which was shown recently on several channels. It is a movie that tells of some of the atrocities that transpired during the genocide in Rwanda when the Tutsis were being killed by the Hutus.

That Genocide was sparked by some irresponsible reporting that led to one journalist being taken before that international criminal court for crimes against humanity.

These are things that persons who advise, Sharma if they had his interest at heart, would have been telling him. I can understand Corbin and the PNCR jumping, it seems, to his aid, after all they have their free air time to protect.

Sharma needs to be careful with these guys; he would do well to remember the treatment meted out to him after the failure of CREEP (committee for the re-election of the President) to have Hoyte re-elected in 92.

We all know that there is no part of the world that any person would have been allowed to 'carry on' the way that Sharma does and get away with it. The freedom of speech, like any other freedom, has its limitations. Whenever these freedoms are exercised, they should not cause other persons to not enjoy their freedoms also.

To issue a threat is unlawful in any part of the world notwithstanding the freedom of speech. The same goes for libel and a number of other offences that could be committed by speech.

If it is that Sharma did not willfully allow the infringement, then he should not be fearful of attending the meeting and presenting his case. He will have to present a defence anyhow. We have this attitude in Guyana that it is inappropriate for the authorities to ask some one to explain their actions. We see the same thing happening when the police stop persons during their routine operations.

This culture has evolved as a result of the propaganda that continues to be published by opposition elements. This could be one of the causes of the daring disregard for the rule of law and order that has be exhibited by some sections of the society.

Sharma has a golden opportunity to come good; he should apologise and use his programme to educate, while entertaining.

I am not at all surprised by the PNCR statement on the issue, given the quality of the party's weekly dose of hate speech in the form of the Nation Watch programme. They have every thing to gain by conflict in the society and so they will encourage conflict where ever they could create it.

The claim that government is harassing Sharma is amusing. It seems as if it is all right for Sharma to sit in his studio and harass whomever he chooses daily; but if any person should call him to account for his actions, then it is harassment.
Jean Ramroop

I wholeheartedly agree with the Government
Many will suffer in terms of providing for their families, etc, for the next four months, now that CN Sharma's TV Channel- Six has been pulled off the air. Well I wholeheartedly agree with the Government on this matter, and Mr. Sharma had better be thankful that his channel wasn't suspended for a longer period. That is the result when those who have been entrusted with the disseminating of the day's news, current affairs, etc, cross the parameters of good journalism and enter into an arena that promotes hate, and discord.

Surely, the next four months will allow Mr. Sharma to think about what he allowed to happen on that call-in programme that brought on this whole mess.

Surely, this must be an example to others who may want to emulate this kind of political grandstanding. They must realise that in Guyana there is the law of the press, and boundaries that should not be entered and crossed. If they do, then there would be consequences.