Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Channel Six Suspension

The Channel Six Suspension
Stabroek News. Editorial. April 14, 2008

There is no disagreement that the threat uttered against President Jagdeo on a live call-in programme on CNS Channel Six on February 21 was criminal, reprehensible and inexcusable. The unfiltered call came four days after the Bartica massacre which had been preceded several weeks before by the Lusignan slaughter. Tensions were running high, fear gripped all parts of the country and members of the public were no doubt given to extravagant postulates and declarations. The offending caller was one such person. She said in part “…look at these killings and nobody can’t give account about these people’s lives and Jagdeo going to take a high risk job by going and tell people to calm down; he’s going to bury the dead bodies. If anything is going to happen to my family. I am going to kill Jagdeo”.
The reportedly elderly woman should not have said what she said and the proprietor of the station, Mr Sharma intervened and told her so.
Mr Sharma was however exceedingly careless in not editing that particular comment out of the programme which was subsequently rebroadcast thrice. When he was pressed on this point by President Jagdeo’s legal team he had no plausible explanation. Mr Sharma had told the Advisory Committee on Broadcasting (ACB) in reply to their complaint “In the instance when it was replayed prior to your letter, it was done without my knowledge by the person who books programmes”. As the proprietor of the station and considering the broadcaster’s liability in this matter that admission by Mr Sharma exposed a shocking dereliction of duty and clearly a transgression that occurs too often in the broadcast media.The transgression did not however warrant the penalty that was meted out by President Jagdeo on Friday night. CNS Channel Six has been a repeat offender and had been taken off the air previously for infractions which included the superimposition of an image of President Jagdeo dancing on scenes of the immense flooding from 2005. On that occasion he was taken off the air for several weeks.
Even if his previous track record was factored into the punishment equation, suspension of Channel Six’s licence for four months is excessive. There is no businessman engaged in any type of legal business here, no matter how profitable, who could say with a straight face that he could easily survive being shut down for four months. In a competitive business environment, the four-month ban on Mr Sharma’s station is tantamount to an attempt to put him out of business. The excessiveness of the punishment therefore impinges on press freedom issues specifically whether the action can drive one of the government’s harshest critics out of business and was so intended. Press freedom can be assaulted in many ways as the 17-month boycott of Stabroek News by the state advertiser showed.
There were several mitigating circumstances which if taken account of should have resulted in a much lesser penalty against the station. Mr Sharma had recognized his error and would have been amenable to an apology to the President for the caller’s remark, the rebroadcasts which were cited as the main cause of the President’s action occurred before the first letter from the ACB complaining about the caller’s comments and there were no re-broadcasts after this, Mr Sharma promised to acquire a time-delay mechanism so that unfiltered calls were not aired and he had already been subject to an inquiry from the ACB which accepted his explanations.
Further, the President and his administration are just as blameworthy as Mr Sharma for what has transpired on the broadcast spectrum. The ACB was established in 2001 as part of a series of confidence building measures between President Jagdeo and Mr Hoyte that broke a longstanding political impasse in the country. The objective of the ACB was to take interim control of disciplinary and licence matters from the subject minister – and the inherent politicization – and repose the mandate with professionals: nominees from the government, the opposition and the private sector. The spirit of the agreement never envisaged that the subject minister would vault the ACB and impose penalties from on high. That was precisely the type of intervention the ACB was put in place to avoid. Therefore, the arguments trotted out by the Office of the President and repeated on an NCN programme on Saturday night that the minister can act on his own is completely untenable. Why didn’t President Jagdeo first lodge a complaint with ACB about the offending broadcast? If he had and was still not satisfied with the way it was handled – as he clearly wasn’t – then there might have been greater room for accepting his subsequent decision.
The President and his government are even more culpable on the grounds of the anomie in the broadcast sector. President Jagdeo has had nine years to bring some order to the broadcast spectrum. He once convened a ground-breaking meeting of broadcasters to urgently hammer out agreement on new legislation which would cater for a broadcast authority to replace the interim ACB and take charge of the entire spectrum and many things that the ACB is not even doing. That process which would also have broken the longstanding and oppressive monopoly of the radio spectrum was allowed to fall apart on the spurious grounds that the PNCR had altered its positions. The PPP/C at all times during these nine years had a comfortable parliamentary majority and has passed bill after bill without the agreement of the opposition.
That Mr Sharma and others have been allowed to have live call-in programmes after all these years and are now hustling for time delay devices is as much a damning commentary on Channel Six’s services as it is on the government’s dereliction of its duty.
The President’s obligation is to bring order to the broadcast sector and he should begin doing so immediately. In the meanwhile the penalty against Mr Sharma is completely ill-matched to his offence and should be withdrawn.
As an aside, the NCN programme on Saturday evening which featured the Attorney General Singh, PPP/C MP Nandlall and the Presidential Advisor on Governance Ms Teixeira is exactly the type of programme that offends a significant part of the population which feels that it has no voice on the state media.
There is nothing wrong with the government being given an opportunity to explain its position as was effortlessly enabled by the tepid questions that were lobbed by the interviewer. But where is the balance? Where is the state media programme that considers the opposition viewpoint or the aggrieved party himself? As unconvincing as the programme was it continues to beg the question why state TV remains inaccessible to opposition viewpoints or, indeed, viewpoints that differ from the government’s.

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