Public Service Minister calls for regulation

Dr Jimmy Fletcher

Dr Jimmy Fletcher

With fourteen radio stations, seven television stations and a number of online radio stations operating locally, one would have thought the sector would have been better “regulated” by now. While some inadvertently equate “regulating” with “censoring” one cannot imagine that even America with all of its free speech laws, having a free for all broadcast media where any and everyone is free to do and say as they please with impunity.

Fox, CNN, even online correspondent Syrius radio knows much about the FCC its guidelines, regulations and fines for breaching such. And so those who fear any sort of Government “censorship” here argue for self-regulation. However, in the absence of that, what passes for mass media here has turned into mass confusion with very low broadcast standards and inconsistencies in qualities. Very often what should have been censored content winds up being carelessly uncensored.

During his final budget presentation here in 2011 former Prime Minister Stevenson King alluded to the fact that several media houses here were in debt, owing the Government revenue for license fees. While this may in fact be the case, the STAR has since discovered that the law in that regard is both inadequate and ineffective, therefore little can be done to make media houses pay up.

As it stands, it appears as though past Governments were only interested in putting clauses into broadcast licenses to protect their own five-year interest, allowing for a certain amount of air-time for their propaganda. This time around however, the Government’s fix-it man as far as public sector reform, the public service, the media and now even the civil registry, is on a mission to correct the wrongs of the past. In March this year Dr Jimmy Fletcher, whose portfolio among other things includes broadcasting and information, circulated an OECS draft broadcast bill for comment from the media and various interest groups. Last month the STAR spoke with the Minister on the bill.

“The broadcast act was drafted by the OECS secretariat and it is supposed to be a harmonized broadcast act for the entire OECS region. We have circulated that draft, which is the current legislation, the broadcasting act and the broadcasting regulations. We have circulated to the Media Association of Saint Lucia for comments,” Fletcher elaborated. The deadline to receive all feedback was June.

“We have not agreed what the final document will be as yet and we have also sent the draft out to other interested bodies so they can give us some feedback on it as well,” the Minister added.

Asked about the areas pertaining to broadcast media that concern him presently, Fletcher had this to say: “First of all, the fact that you just have an unregulated sector is one thing. I think as a sector that is so influential in shaping public opinion, you at least want to know that there are some norms and regulations by which people operate.”

According to the Minister, when he received information last year from ECCO, the copyright organization in St Lucia, that was the point he realized that the media landscape on island was “cluttered.”

“Not only that, but standards varied,” Fletcher told the STAR. “One of my biggest concerns with TV for example is the almost complete absence of local content. The only semblance of anything local is between seven and nine in the evening during news time.”

The new broadcast bill speaks to cultural policies, promoting and shaping values and contributing to a national identity.

“You hear things on the radio and see things on television at particular times that you figure you should not be hearing or seeing,” said the Minister who also admitted to being a fan of Hip Hop and Dancehall. “When I listen to some of the songs being played, even the DJ’s playing the clean version of the song, the clean version of the song and the explicit version does not leave much to the imagination as to what is being said so for me, there ought to be some kind of standard as to what you can play and when you can play it,” he expressed. “I do not wish to see a censorship body, I want the media to regulate itself. I want the media to discuss such issues among themselves and to make recommendations as to the way forward.”

Some of these matters will be addressed more in the regulations aspect than in the act itself as well as the whole question of explicit language. The Minister found issue in the fact that the act speaks to adult programming on TV on weekdays when children are expected to be in school.

“So what happens when such days are holidays? Or when these children may be away from school on a weekday?” he questions.

There was also the fact that the act did not provide clear guidelines for the payment of license fees.

“GIS gave me something before the 2012 Budget that suggested that quite a few were in default and had not paid Government for a while,” Jimmy Fletcher told the STAR. “My thing is, we need to regulate this properly. The other thing we found out was that some were paying under an arrangement that was not legislated. They were paying fees that would not allow Government to accept the money, so as far as I know there is nothing formal in place.”

While the new act does speak to licenses and renewal fees it is deficient in addressing online radio and TV, something the Minister acknowledges. Fletcher commented on the fact that the new “bill” gives the final say to the Minister on all matters, even if a board governing a new broadcast authority were to be appointed.

“If you have legislation there must be somebody who is ultimately responsible in parliament for that legislation and that person is the Minister,” Fletcher offered as an explanation. “If you take as a parallel the telecommunications act, there is the NTRC but the person ultimately responsible is the Minister, but the Minister has very little latitude to do anything. He simply gives out or approves licenses recommended by NTRC. If you establish an authority with people who are experienced and competent then you would expect that these people would be able to
make sound decisions. It should not be that after giving recommendations to a Minister that he would arbitrarily say I will discard it or contravene it. While the Minister according to the act may not be bound by what the authority says, I agree that there should be no political interference.”

Realistically, according to Dr Fletcher, he would like to have all discussions on the draft broadcast act completed some time this month.

“I would like to see matters pertaining to this bill completed during this session of parliament and my absolute deadline to have this act ready is by February or March of 2014,” the Minister told the STAR.

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