As has been reported in the media, Communications Minister Jamal Mohammed and other government officials in a meeting with the T&T Publishers and Broadcasters Association (TTPBA) and the Media Association (MATT) have pushed to get five minutes in every hour of broadcasting for government programmes to be carried by privately-owned radio and television stations.
Presumably, these five-minutes-an-hour slots would be in addition to the airtime in which government programmes are already broadcast on radio and television. The Government also has full use of the state-owned television station, the Caribbean New Media Group (CNMG), and Government Information Services Ltd (GISL) programming, the latter carried without interruption on Channel 4. This is in addition to extensive paid advertising in broadcast and print media.
The concession agreement under which the Government is seeking this additional airtime was struck in 2005 but has never been utilised in the manner now being sought. Perhaps the intention of that agreement was to leave a window for Government to utilise these channels for communication in a national emergency during which contact with the population on the hour would be an absolute necessity.
Now, however, the People's Partnership Government is seeking to take advantage of a situation that could offend the sensibilities of listeners and viewers-and worse. Having five minutes imposed in every hour of programming has serious potential to adversely affect the financial viability of the privately-owned 30-plus radio stations, the three national television stations and six smaller community stations.
Gone are the days when T&T Television and Radio 610 were the only broadcast media houses and viewers and listeners had little choice but to sit through government programming. Not only must local media houses compete fiercely against each other but they must also compete against global media giants whose programming is now accessible everywhere.
Owners, managers and the hundreds of employees of privately-owned stations would be hit a crushing blow as consumers, not wanting to have their listening and viewing habits dictated and disrupted by government programmes, switch to cable stations and online media now available to them.
Private media houses depend on advertising income which is driven by the number of readers, viewers and listeners they have. These companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in their business operations. Maybe the Government, in these times when investment and confidence among business executives are in short supply, has not thought through this intention and how it could negatively affect an industry based on information and entertainment.
The move has already been condemned by the International Press Institute (IPI) and its local and regional affiliates, MATT and the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM). So far, Mr Mohammed has not detailed government's plans with respect to this increased time being sought for government programming. And while he has said there will be dialogue and consensus before implementation, the sense is that it is a "done deal."
Media executives and practitioners at the meeting did not get the impression that the Government was prepared to make any compromise on the issue, or even that government officials understood their concerns. In this age of information in which citizens depend on information to structure their lives, taking such decisions could have far-reaching implications for the survival of the vital organs of mass communication and could seriously retard the development of a free, vibrant democratic society.