Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Violations focus on Jamaica and Guyana
By Rickey Singh
THE RIGHT TO press freedom and the wider freedom of expression is best protected by an obligation on the part of journalists and media enterprises to appreciate how indivisible are freedom and responsibility.

Over the long years of my involvement in Caribbean journalism and working relations with regional media enterprises, I have been increasingly sensitised to the twin pillars of freedom and responsibility and how well the concept serves the interest of the media profession, media enterprises and the public we seek to serve. I am grateful for the education.

I have also been exposed to the irresponsible behaviour of some media practitioners and media houses that often betray a penchant for irresponsible journalism that shows contempt for the concept of 'freedom with responsibility'. :|

They are among those quick to passionately shout "denial of press freedom", or "danger to freedom of expression", when their individual/collective abuses are challenged and threats of sanctions are raised, or enforced.

Why am I engaging in such observations at this time? It relates, primarily, to two separate media developments of current interest and debates--one in Jamaica, the other in Guyana.

Both are examples of what can happen when owners/operators violate the letter and spirit of a broadcast licence to the serious hurt of private/public individuals in facilitating reckless abuse of freedom of expression by failure to ensure application of relevant regulatory mechanisms.

Jamaica examples
The first case involved the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica (BCJ) and Universal Media Company (UMC), operator of "NewsTalk 93FM" jointly owned by the University of the West Indies (Mona Campus) as majority shareholder, and Breakfast Club Limited. Managing Director of the radio station is Anthony Abrahams.

As broadcast licensee, UMC was accused by the BCJ of having committed "an extremely grave breach" of Jamaica's 'Television and Sound Broadcasting Regulations as well as the "Children's Code for Programming" in the transmission of its "NewsTalk" broadcast on January 2 last.

The highly reputable BCJ, currently headed by Dr Hopetun Dunn, a media and communication specialist, conducted an investigation into the offensive "NewsTalk" programme. The probe revealed that the programme hosted by Dr Kingsley Stewart, had indulged in an "uninterrupted monologue" lasting in excess of half an hour, laced with "highly derogatory, shameful, shocking and improper language" against a female administration staff member of the UWI.

While in the process of considering recommended sanction, the UMC's "NewsTalk" call-in programme, again with Stewart as host, further complicated the problem of violations of its broadcast license, by permitting the transmission of "racial slurs and derogatory remarks about persons of Indian descent (in Jamaica)..."

The regulations prohibit transmission of "any statement or comment upon race, colour, creed, religion or sex of any person which is abusive or derogatory. It also violated the 'Children's Code for Programming' with the use of prohibited language..."

Significantly, as noted by Chairman Dunn, it was only after the Commission had made recommendations for suspension of the UMC's licence, unless appropriate disciplinary action and remedial measures, including internal relevant internal controls, were pursued, that some efforts were made for compliance. There are provisions for suspension of a licence for up to three months, if necessary.

However, following the intervention by Minister of Information, Olivia 'Babsy' Grange, the path to recommended suspension of licence was avoided, based on an understanding that disciplinary action, remedial measures and effective management oversight will be undertaken. For a start, Dr Stewart was not hosting the "NewsTalk" call-in programme-- at the time of writing.

Guyana scenario
While Jamaicans were focused on the BCJ's case against UMC's violations of its broadcast licence, controversies were spreading over the decision last week by Guyana's President Bharrat Jagdeo (who holds responsibility for information and communication), to suspend for four months the operational licence of the privately-owned television station, "CNS Channel 6".

The core of the dispute was that the station, owned and operated by Chandra Narine Sharma, a businessman, opposition politician and host of a regular "Voice of the People" call-in programme, had transmitted a broadcast on February 21 that contained criminal incitement, specifically against President Jagdeo. Worse, it was thrice repeated without any editing of the offensive remarks, in particular a threat to "kill Jagdeo".

The offensive broadcast by CNS Channel 6---one of some dozen television stations operating in an unregulated, wild-west atmosphere in Guyana--in direct contrast to what obtains in Jamaica--had touched a very raw nerve with one female caller making the threat: "I am going to kill (President) Jagdeo if anything is going to happen to my family..."

That programme was first broadcast at a time of widespread tension and fear against the backdrop of the massacres at Lusignan and Bartica that sent President Jagdeo engaging in public meetings with appeals for peace and assurances of firm actions against armed criminals.

Having offered an apology for the offensive threat to "kill", following an intervention by the Advisory Committee on Broadcasting (ACB)--which has neither the stature nor power of a regulated body like the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica--Sharma's station was to repeat, unedited, the controversial programme--THRICE, only to offer some clumsy excuses, including blaming staffers for errors made.

In the circumstances, and given the gravity of the threat to "kill" the President, Sharma was invited, first by Head of the Presidential Secretariat, Dr Roger Luncheon, to show cause why his broadcast licence should not be suspended.

When he failed to show up for the meeting with Luncheon, another was arranged with President Jagdeo. By then Sharma had moved with his lawyers to the court to prevent the contemplated suspension sanction.

As Head of Government and holding responsibility for information and communication, Jagdeo felt there was really no remorse by CNS 6 for the transgression that had taken place with the threat to commit a criminal act. Therefore, he suspended the station's licence for four months.

There is no doubt about the recklessness on the part of CNS 6 and the politics being played out in a country that stands in great need for appreciation of the concept of media freedom with responsibility.

Yet, the four-month suspension seems very harsh--even for a licensee like Sharma, noted for unpredictable behaviour. It deserves to be revisited. The suspension case has reached the High Court and the Attorney General, Doodnauth Singh, is scheduled to make a written submission to the presiding judge by Wednesday.

Whatever the outcome of the CNS 6 suspension issue, it is evident that, as in the case involving "NewsTalk 93FM" in Jamaica, there are lessons to be learnt by the broadcast media and all advocates of freedom of expression to have a regulated environment that respects the necessity to blend freedom with responsibility.