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In its present form, Government’s Draft Broadcast Act seeks to slam the door shut on freedom of the media and free speech in Dominica, while paving the way for severe censorship of information and entertainment.

The draft Act gives the Minister responsible for Information, sweeping and vaguely defined powers to control and suppress the activities of the broadcast media. The Minister’s powers are so loosely defined that a government could easily use a subjective interpretation of the Minister’s authority under the Act to muzzle broadcasters and deprive them of their fundamental right to police governments’ activities on behalf of the people.

Furthermore, certain important objectives and guidelines in the draft Act for the proposed Broadcasting Authority and its subsidiary committees are vaguely expressed and subject to multiple interpretations. Therefore, as time passes and the members of the authority and its committees change, it is quite likely that their decisions would be inconsistent, varying according to subjec¬tive interpretations of the Act by different personnel at different times.

The Minister’s wide discretionary powers are a key area of concern. For example, Part II, Section 5 of the draft Act states: “The Minister may issue such directions to the Board in relation to policy matters affecting national security, public order and safety of Dominica and the Board shall comply with these directions”. In effect, there are absolutely no checks and balances to ensure that the Minister directs the Authority appropriately and without political bias.

Since the draft Act does not specify any criteria or set any parameters for the Minister’s ability to invoke this provision, the interpretation of the terms “affecting national security, public order and safety of Dominica” is left entirely up to the Minister. As such, the Minister can block media coverage of anti-government commentary, activities or protests by arbitrarily declaring them threats to national security, public order and safety.

Part II Section 7 (d), subsections (i) and (ii) of the draft Act state that the Authority must ensure broadcasts do not “incite crime leading to disorder or offending public or religious feeling”. This pliable definition allows a wide range of subjective interpretations without giving any directives regarding what specific broadcast content incites crime or leads to disorder or offends public or religious feeling. The subjective interpretations of this provision are fuel for political mischief.

Again, Part II, Section 7 (£) of the draft Act refers to ensuring that broad¬casting services are of the “highest possible quality” without specifying how the acceptable level of quality is to be determined. Since the provision neglects to set down appropriate quality controls for broadcasts, it is left up to “the eye of the beholder”. This means the provision is likely to be applied in a whimsical and haphazard way, according to the personal biases of members of the Audiority.

Part II, Section 7 (k) of the draft Act refers to compulsory “public service” and “development support” broadcasts. Unless the criteria for these are clearly defined, a government could use this provision to force privately owned media to broadcast public relations material and propaganda. Also, Part II, Section 7 (m) refers to the “needs of the audience in Dominica”. Since these are fluid and change with the times, who determines what these “needs” are and by what criteria?

Part V Section 40 (5) refers to maintaining “taste and decency” in terms of violence and sexual content. This flexible definition could lead to rabid censor¬ship by the “standards committee” along vague moral and religious notions. The draft Act does not state with any clarity or detail what types or degrees of violence and sexual conduct should not be broadcast. Would future broadcasts of dancing at Carnival be banned for being offending taste and decency?

The list of concerns about the Draft Broadcast Act is too long for all to be included here. However, unless the Act is substantially revised before reaching Parliament, broadcasters could wake up one day with blinkers on their eyes and muzzles on their faces and wonder how they got there.

This Article was published in the Editorial section of the Chronicle Newspaper – August 22, 2008

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