Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Media and Politics in Guyana

The vagaries of a minority government in Guyana unfolded dramatically as parliamentary debate on a G$192 billion (TT$6.4 billion) budget ended recently in Georgetown.

On more than one occasion, ruling People’s Progressive Party (PPP) partisans, senior public servants and high-profile state officials and agency heads picketed parliament in a manner described by one local journalist as being more reflective of the actions of opposition parties over the years. The PPP has been in power since 1992.

Senior executives and employees of the state-operated National Communications Network (NCN) and Government Information News Agency (GINA) were on the streets protesting cuts to their budgets proposed by the two opposition parties in parliament without whose support government’s budget estimates could not have been approved.

The situation arose following November 28, 2011 elections which saw the PPP winning 32 seats – one seat short of a majority in the 65-seat National Assembly. Twenty-six of the remaining seats went to A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) opposition coalition while the Alliance for Change won seven seats determined under the country’s system of proportional representation.

As a consequence, local wags have been noting that there has never been such a consistent incidence of 100% parliamentary attendance and high level of consultation among the political parties.

But opposition moves to reduce state subventions to state media have led to a bizarre string of developments.

Prior to the NCN/GINA demonstration, for example, live coverage of the second cricket Test match between the West Indies and Australia in Dominica was suddenly suspended when an NCN panel including the station’s Chief Executive Officer, Mohamed Sattaur; Programme Manager Martin Goolsaran and Editor-in-Chief, Michael Gordon appeared on-screen to explain their opposition to the proposed cuts.

Radio audiences on some services had also earlier been met with “dead air” as NCN shut down the country’s lone radio station overnight and television viewers lost signals from NCN’s television service when the state broadcaster shut down their Linden transmitters.

NCN Chief Executive Officer, Mohamed Sattaur, explained the disruptions in service were necessary “because we are just making people aware that the cut in the subventions will have consequences.”

At issue, in this instance, were cuts separately proposed by the APNU and AFC to subventions emanating from the office of the president to the media agencies. Payments to “contracted employees” constituted the most contentious slice of the cuts and wrangling over cuts there had been intense, but recommended reductions in capital and current subventions to the two state media agencies led to the unprecedented developments in the state media.

Proponents of the APNU/AFC cuts at NCN have referred to a March 19, 2012 letter to AFC Chairman, Khemraj Ramjattan, in which Sattaur claims that up to 90% of the Network’s revenue is derived from “our commercial activities.” One government minister even testified in the debate that the agency had collected over G$500 million (TT$16 million) in advertising revenues in 2011.

The correspondence and subsequent official disclosure appeared to blunt the claim by the service that the reduction in subventions will lead to a heavy loss of jobs, cutbacks in broadcasting times and an inability to perform NCN’s traditionally supportive work in the areas of religious diversity, culture, fashion and sport.

The NCN CEO confirmed that the company’s broadcast services were heavily supported by commercial activities with close to 15% support from the state. The AFC proposal (the APNU had filed a separate motion on this issue) completely removes the G$81.2 million (TT$2.7 million) subvention on current expenditure, while the APNU was proposing abolition of a much smaller subvention under another budget heading.

Former Information Minister, turned leading AFC MP, Moses Nagamotoo, said he fully supported the cuts, notwithstanding his dogged defence of NCN activities while he was in office. He served as the first minister of information in the 1992 PPP administration under the late Cheddi Jagan but resigned from the party in 2011 following a protracted period of conflict with former president, Bharrat Jagdeo.

The NCN is widely criticised for ignoring opposition viewpoints and is described by former line minister, Nagamootoo, as “almost a PPP party outfit.”

During coverage of last year’s elections, it came under the critical scrutiny of a Media Monitoring Unit established under the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) to monitor adherence to a code of media conduct during coverage of the polls.

“We are voting against more money for NCN because we believe it is biased, it is unfair, it is partisan and is almost a PPP party outfit that is used to sledge-hammer the opposition in Guyana,” Nagamootoo said.

Sattaur however contends that NCN services are much more than transmission of government programming, some of which is provided by GINA. As part of NCN’s “awareness” campaign on the issue, interviews are being conducted with persons from a variety of backgrounds attesting to the value of the station as a promoter of non-commercial interests private stations would readily support.

NCN currently employs 152 permanent and 70 contract workers in an operation that competes with 17 private stations. When voting on the subventions occurred, the PPP, with just one seat short, lost the state media battle.

In the National Assembly, four video cameras were positioned to capture the government benches and a side-view, at best, of opposition MPs. One solitary camera - "a PNC camera", this reporter was told - faced the APNU/AFC benches. Two of the group of four were NCN and GINA cameras.

This did not help the situation.

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