The public has a right to Government news and information
The Ministry of Communications (MOC) wishes to address the suggestion that the Government is acting unconstitutionally when it utilises the Concession documentto share information on Government policies and decisions.
President of the Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association (TTPBA) Kiran Maharaj stated in the Newsday dated 15 January 2020 that the association’s concern “…is from an industry standpoint, over the use of the telecommunications concession by governments, specifically sections D31 and D32…It is constant and ongoing and it is unconstitutional."
However, 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 of 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 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…Such material shall, up to a limit of one hour per day, be transmitted without accompanying advertisement.”
Minister of Communications, Senator the Honourable Donna 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.”
For example, the Government gets one (1) hour per week from one TV station although the Concession provides for up to fourteen (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 MOC, 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,” reiterated Minister Cox.
But it is deliberately misleading to imply the Government bullied or acted unethically in its use of the Concession and the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) arrangement with journalist Khamal Georges.
Minister Cox reiterated that the questions were not furnished by the OPM and Mr Georges was free to ask any question he wished, although the OPM requested the interview. This arrangement is in keeping with industry practice.
The Government is mindful of its obligations to citizens and its commitment to a free press in Trinidad and Tobago. Each request made to radio and TV stations takes into consideration the delicate balancing act both parties face between commercial obligations and public interest.
Nevertheless, information is a key pillar of any democracy and no one can deny that it is the duty of the Government to communicate its policies and decisions.
Minister Cox is available and willing to meet with the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) and the TTPBA to clear up any misconceptions.
Key clauses of the Concession in full:
Section D 30:
“The concessionaire shall, on a free-of-charge basis up to a limit of fourteen (14) hours per calendar week, and thereafter at an agreed rate not to exceed eighty-seven and one-half percent (87.5%) of the concessionaire’s regular commercial rate for similar broadcast transmissions, 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. Such material shall, up to a limit of one hour per day, be transmitted without accompanying advertisement.”
Section D 31:
“Pursuant to condition D30, the Government may reasonably declare any matter or event to be of public interest and require the concessionaire to broadcast such matter or event, but 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.”
Section D 32:
“The transmission time allocated to the Government may be varied on the giving of twenty-four (24) hours notice to the concessionaire, except that, in the case of an emergency, such notice period shall be waived.”