The Trinidad and Tobago Telecommunications Authority [TATT] is responsible for, among other things, regulating broadcasting services in T&T. In so doing it makes recommendations to the appropriate minister for granting concessions to companies or persons to provide broadcasting services. A person who is granted a concession must abide by certain conditions. Among these is provision for "Use by the Government" contained in the concession agreement. Since 2004, when TATT began granting concessions, the government of the day has not exercised the full rights granted to it under any concession. The current Minister of Communication has however signalled an intention of so doing.
What does the concession, granted to all broadcasters, say? At Clause D 30 is this stipulation: "The concessionaire shall, on a free-of-charge basis up to a limit of fourteen (14) hours per calendar week… transmit any programme, announcement, information or other material which the Government may require to be transmitted as a matter of public interest, during the concessionaire's ordinary business hours, or at any hour to be selected by agreement with the Government."
This means that any broadcaster, radio or television functioning in T&T must broadcast for free any information or programme that the Government requires it to transmit up to 14 hours a week. Contrary to what the Minister of Communication appears to have said however, this is not something that the Government has to do. It has the right to exercise the power — but it may choose not to do so. That is the first point.
Secondly, the material to be broadcast must be as a "matter of public interest". What does this indicate? At Clause D1 is the provision, "Pursuant to condition D 30, the Government may reasonably declare any matter or event to be of public interest and require the concessionaire to broadcast such matter or event".
To some people this may suggest that a Government could declare any matter or event it chooses to be of public interest. It boggles the mind that at election time, or whenever a government feels that it needs to promote itself, it could declare some programme or matter in the "public interest" and require all our local radio and television stations to carry it, up to a maximum 14 hours per week.
Fortunately the drafter of the concession may have foreseen this and with some foresight included the word "reasonably". This means that in declaring some government-sponsored programme to be a matter of public interest the government must act reasonably. Promoting partisan interests therefore ought not to fall under this head. If any radio or television station owner/manager is of the opinion that any matter he is required by the government or its agents to broadcast is not in the public interest but is merely to promote a political agenda he may challenge the demand.
I point this out because there is an uneasy feeling on the part of many media houses that the reason the Minister of Communication is seeking to enforce these conditions in the concessions granted to them is merely to promote propaganda in the light of recent bad press involving activities of members of the Government. Another concern is that the Government may wish to impose on the prime time of these media houses who depend on advertisements and paid broadcasts aired at those times for their bread and butter.
The concession specifically provides, however, that "the Government shall, in deciding the actual time of transmission and length of broadcast, consult with the concessionaire with a view to causing the least possible disruption to the normal commercial operations of the concessionaire".
This connotes two things. One is that the actual transmission times of government programmes are not expected to disrupt the normal commercial operations of the television or radio. Further, the government cannot settle on any times on its own but must consult with each radio or television station before it activates its demand for time and length of transmission. If government demands are unreasonable or affects the commercial operations of the stations in any significant way then it would seem to me that the station could simply refuse. Let the government take it to court.
I cannot imagine any court in today's world, faced with a constitutional right of "freedom of the press", would compel a radio or television station to transmit government broadcasts say every five minutes on the hour for 24 hours a day (which would amount to two hours a day). That would be totally unreasonable since it must disrupt the commercial operations of the station, since such broadcasting, apart from boring people to death, will alienate many and lead to a movement away from local broadcasting. I for one, know that CNN will become my permanent refuge from what I fear will be a continuous assault of propaganda.
A taste of what might be is what is shown right now on CAL flights. For over ten flights between T&T and Guyana recently I was subjected to at least 20 minutes of promotion of Government activities. Hearing the programme the first time was bad enough — all it featured were the activities of this or that minister — but by the third time (even though the content varied) I was nauseated. I felt and still do that I should get a refund of my money for being having to put up with what I considered pure Government propaganda.
As for the excuse that citizens need to be told what the Government is doing — that is rubbish. Does every ministry not have a website? Does every minister not have two or three PR professionals (former media workers) on his staff? Are the activities of Ministers and by extension the Government not carried as news items daily? Don't we see them on Parliament Channel? We have a surfeit of Government information already available; we don't need or want any forced on us.
* Dana S Seetahal is a former