Saturday, December 13, 2008

Broadcast licence requests must be dealt with urgently – CJ Chang rules

Broadcast licence requests must be dealt with urgently – CJ Chang rules
Says political consensus argument invalid
Stabroek News.
Published: December 13, 2008 in News

In a landmark decision in favour of Lindeners, Chief Justice (ag) Ian Chang ruled yesterday that government cannot penalize the people of the mining town and freeze applications for wider broadcast access until it reaches a political consensus with the main opposition party on broadcast legislation.

Though reforms in the telecommunications sector are critical, the Chief Justice said residents in the community should not be made to suffer, and he ordered that all applications for television and radio licences be dealt with forthwith, and not “at the convenience of the administration”.

His judgment comes in the wake of the defeat by the government benches of an Alliance For Change motion in parliament last week, which had called for wider television access in Linden. Government rejected the motion, but had indicated its willingness to grant new broadcast licences and re-examine long-delayed legislation, something that had been promised since 1992.

Chief Justice Chang said that applications should not be placed on file as had been the practice since the issue speaks to the fundamental right of residents in the community i.e. freedom of expression. According to him, there can be no excuses, particularly as it relates to the administration having to consult with the PNCR to move the legislation forward in the telecommunications sector.

Further, he said that what has happened to the people of Linden is discriminatory; noting that they have a constitutional right to access more than one television station. Thus far, only state TV NCN has been allowed to broadcast there.

The Chief Justice’s ruling came in response to a 2005 constitutional case brought by Linden residents, Norman Chapman and Mortimer Yearwood. They had been seeking to set up a radio station since 2001 and also signaled renewed interest ahead of the 2006 General Elections and had merely been told by the National Frequency Management Unit (NFMU) that their application would be placed on file as no agreement had yet been reached on broadcast legislation reform. Through attorney-at-law Llewellyn John they then approached the court against the Attorney General and the Guyana Elections Commission seeking several declarations.

Among these were that the failure of the respondents to have radio broadcasts from stations other than state radio is a negation of free and fair elections; the failure of the respondents to allow television channels other than state TV in Region 10 is a contravention of the applicants’ fundamental rights under Article 146 of the constitution. They also sought declarations that their rights under Article 149 in relation to accessing information and ideas and Article 40 in relation to equality of treatment and protection of the law had been infringed.

In clearing the way for Yearwood and Chapman’s licence application, Chief Justice Chang has also opened the door for CNS television station owner, CN Sharma and a host of others who are seeking to expand coverage to Linden and other parts. Sharma, though not an applicant in the court matter, had testified at the hearing regarding his efforts to transmit in Region 10 being stymied by the government.

John last evening referred to the ruling as momentous and as of particular importance to his clients and persons with ambitions to transit in Region Ten. He said the decision has determined a critical aspect of the constitution that speaks to free expression. “I take a strong view on this issue and I also intend to pursue this matter to the highest level and the final court because it is an important one”, John said in reference to an indication by the Attorney General, Doodnauth Singh of the state’s intention to appeal the ruling.

John said he will push the case all the way, adding that he was heartened by the position taken by the Acting Chief Justice in the case.

The move to the High Court by Chapman and Yearwood was initiated after they failed to secure a television licence to operate in Linden. They had outlined back in 2005 that the request was being made because of the need in the area for an extension in electronic media services. Yearwood was applying through his company, LIHCO (Lanmac Investment Holdings Co Ltd).

According to them, they were being denied a right to get information for the 2006 General and Regional Elections by radio and television stations from mediums other than those owned and controlled by the National Communication Network (NCN). Managing Director of the NMFU, Valmikki Singh, was on record in court documents as saying that the application by the two residents of Linden were placed on file and that it would come up for consideration at such a point as sufficient progress had been made with respect to the enactment of Broadcast legislation and in the area of the reform and modernization of the telecommunications sector. “To date, neither has been completed…it is necessary for technical reasons for these to be resolved before any new licences are granted”, Singh said.

The Attorney General advanced similar arguments in court, emphasizing though the need for a consensus between the government and the main opposition on the issue.

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