Controversial Broadcast (Amendment) BillBy Lakhram BhagiratThe International Press Institute (IPI) is calling on the Government to address the serious concerns raised by the local media groups over pending amendments to the Broadcast (Amendment) Bill.Government on Friday last used its one-seat majority in the National Assembly to pass this controversial Bill, which mandates broadcasters to air up to 60 minutes of ‘public service announcements (PSAs)’ for free.The IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications, Steven M. Ellis, urged the Guyana Government to address criticism regarding the amendments before they become law.“We are troubled that this bill appears to have been drafted and passed without time for sufficient consultation with all relevant stakeholders, including Guyana’s private broadcasters and local civil society groups,” he said.“Elements of this legislation – in particular provisions related to the broadcasting of public service content – also raise questions about the Government’s commitment to ensuring that Guyanese radio and television stations can operate independently from state and political control. We urge lawmakers to address those questions, and revise these amendments as necessary,” Ellis added.The press freedom advocacy body has said that concerns over broadcasting freedom in Guyana are not new. It has cited the radio monopoly which had been in place until 2011, when former President Bharrat Jagdeo granted several radio and television licences prior to demitting office.During a 2013 visit to Guyana, IPI had urged Government to ensure that granting of television and radio licences under the newly introduced Broadcasting Act be conducted in a transparent and impartial manner.Do not assentAnd the international non-profit, non- governmental organization Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), aka Reporters Without Borders, is urging President David Granger not to assent to this controversial bill without “consultations with broadcasters, in order to take into account their recommendations”.RSF has said the current bill, passed without consultation, raises multiple press freedom concerns.However, in Parliament last Friday, during his closing presentation on the Bill, Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo said the only consultations mandated for the bill are those Government has had with the Guyana National Broadcasting Authority (GNBA) and the National Frequency Management Unit (NFMU). Nevertheless, he asserted that the GNBA had indeed had consultations with broadcasters in 2016.“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,” the RSF has said.According to Advocacy and Communications Director for RSF’s North America Bureau, Margaux Ewen, 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. As such, RSF urges President Granger not to assent to this legislation until these concerns can be addressed through meaningful consultation.Tabled by Nagamootoo, the amendments include a provision requiring private broadcasters to allocate, free of charge, up to 60 minutes of public service programming daily.It also mandates all current broadcast licence holders to reapply to be licensed within 30 days of the passage of the bill, or lose their right to broadcast.The Guyana Press Association (GPA) has said it agrees that private broadcasters should play a role during emergencies and disasters, but highlighted that the amendment would give authorities the ability to dictate time slots if they did not agree with the ones allocated by stations.This new legislation gives Government the right to decide the content and frequency of the PSAs, while defining PSAs as “the broadcast of a programme produced for the purpose of informing and educating the public, and promoting policies and activities of the Government that benefit the public as a whole.”The broadcasts, which also include time for presidential addresses and disaster warnings, are to be allocated between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.GPA, in a statement, told IPI that the bill “will disrupt and violate contractual obligations that stations will have with advertisers and programme sponsors.”The local media representative body has also said it would work with international groups to “convince the Government of the need to halt or reverse this process, given the severe consequences these amendments pose to freedom of the press and the commercial viability of private radio and television stations.”Since their announcement, these proposed amendments have been condemned by local broadcasters, the Opposition political party, and various other stakeholders. Those concerns and criticisms have apparently fallen on deaf ears, or Government is just oblivious of the criticisms, since the amendments continue to be pushed.The Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM) has also called for the President and broadcasters to meet, arguing, “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.”Prior to the passage of the bill, a number of broadcasters said in a statement that they had not been consulted on the contents of the bill, either during its preparation or to date. They say they are hoping the authorities would now afford them opportunity for consultation, before this important piece of legislation is passed.Chairman of the GNBA, Leslie Sobers, has said that broadcasters who fear revocation of licences should be more concerned about the content they air than with the provisions of the recently passed amendments to the broadcast legislation.