THE TT Publishers and Broadcasters Association (TTPBA) on Thursday said it “has always had a concern about sections D30, D31 and D32 of its broadcast concession.”
The association said it was a matter that has been an ongoing discussion with the Telecommunications Authority (TATT).
It said the TTPBA has received opinions from press freedom organisations who have spoken about the “unconstitutionality of the clauses in its current wording.”
The TTPBA added that over the years, recommendations have been made, and submitted to various parliamentarians in their roles as ministers of communication, as well as TATT.
“It is an issue which the TTPBA continues to work on to find a resolution,” the statement said, adding that it was happy that the present Minister of Communications, Donna Cox, sees the value of the media as “the fourth pillar of democracy.”
“Of major concern to the TTPBA, especially in an election year, is the use of airtime by government,” the statement said.
“Over the past three general elections in TT (under different governments) there was a substantial increase in requests for airtime use.
“The definition of what constitutes “public interest” has always been a matter of contention and this is an aspect of the clauses with which the TTPBA has always been concerned.
“This is especially true of clause D31 which gives government, carte blanche, to define “public interest” which, according to some opinions, is an antithesis to press freedom and democracy,” the statement said.
It added that other ministries have made requests for
airtime use based on clauses D30-D32.
“This explains why the ministry is not completely aware of all the requests made of media houses.
“The TTPBA would like to recommend that all ministries make such requests via the Ministry of Communications as a centralised effort to streamline and effectively monitor government communication.
“The TTPBA would like to go on record that neither it nor its president has ever inferred that a media house, in the most recent interview with the Prime Minister, was bullied by the Office of the Prime Minister and its use of the concession.
“We welcome the opportunity to meet with Minister Cox at her earliest convenience, since there are several industry matters that we believe should be brought to her attention.
“The government and the TTPBA have a shared interest, which is, citizens of Trinidad and Tobago. We hope that we have clarified public misconceptions and we reiterate our commitment to ensure the public’s right to know,” the statement added.
The TTPBA’s statement was in response to Minister Cox’s defence of an interview between the Prime Minister and CNC3 news anchor Khamal Georges, arranged by the Office of the Prime Minister.
The taped interview, which the Opposition described as a "work of fiction," was aired two Sundays ago on CNC3 and TTT but TV6 declined to air it citing commercial obligations.
Cox, in a ministry release, said it wished to address the suggestion that the Government is acting unconstitutionally when it utilises the concession document to share information on Government policies and decisions. The ministry said the concession, which is signed by all providers of public broadcasting and telecommunications services, sets out the terms and conditions under which the Government can request airtime from broadcast stations.
"All free-to-air radio and TV stations agreed to the conditions set out under conditions D30 to 32 of their Concession. Section D 30 provides, inter alia: 'The concessionaire shall, on a free-of-charge basis up to a limit of 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…(and) such material shall, up to a limit of one hour per day, be transmitted without accompanying advertisement.”
Cox said: “We are not unreasonable. For us, every request is the beginning of a negotiation. Often, stations inform us that they are unable to air Government programmes at the times we request, and so begins a discussion. We have always been able to reach some compromise.”
She said, for example, the Government gets one hour per week from one television station although the concession provides for up to 14 hours per calendar week.
"Moreso, it is incorrect that, 'Almost every week a media house gets a letter from Government expressing the wish to utilise the air time' as espoused by TTPBA’s president. The record will reflect that prior to the January request from the (ministry), the last request for air time was made in November.
“We value the media and its role in shaping a society we can all be proud of. We also value our relationship with the media and will do nothing to undermine this fourth pillar of democracy. But it is deliberately misleading to imply the Government bullied or acted unethically in its use of the concession and the OPM arrangement with journalist Khamal Georges.
She insisted that the arrangement was in keeping with industry practice.