by Larry Smith
"One of the first things to go in a coup - right after the presidential palace - is the radio and TV station - so we know broadcasting has power." -- Stephen King, director of BBC World Service Trust, speaking at the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association meeting in Nassau last week.
Seventeen years ago, in the midst of a tanking economy, a group of home-grown Muslim jihadis blew up the police headquarters in Trinidad, took over parliament and held the prime minister and many others hostage.
The second thing they did was take over the state-run television station - to announce that the government had been overthrown.
A six-day stand-off ensued with the army, accompanied by widespread looting and chaos in the capital. The prime minister and his attorney general were both shot and wounded by their captors, and dozens of others were killed during the coup attempt.
Trinidad and Tobago is a plural society. The main ethnic groups are Hindu East Indians and Christian Africans, with a small minority of Muslim Asians, but the group that mounted the 1990 coup was mostly black. It's leader was a former policeman named Lennox Philips who had converted to Islam.
This bit of recent history shows that we don't need to look far to see how our own parliamentary democracy might be threatened someday. Our formerly homogenous society is now developing a significant and exploited creole minority, not to mention a hardened criminal underclass.
Of course, it is an extreme example for us. But for some members of the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association, which met in Nassau last week, it is a chilling reality. On Friday, I attended a workshop at the British Colonial Hilton that examined state pressure on broadcasters in several countries.
Fiji is a Pacific Ocean archipelago that is a former British colony and parliamentary democracy like us. Since independence in 1970 it has had no less than four coups, and is currently run by the army. The clear message of Bill Parkinson, who operates private radio stations under this regime, was that complacency should always be resisted:
"You should establish a strong media council and code of conduct which will give you bargaining power in the event something bad happens. And in a small society it should be a cross-media council. You should never stop promoting media freedom, and don't take it for granted that ordinary folk understand what media freedom is all about."
Well, there is no media association here. And the state continues to control television and radio infrastructure, as well as the antiquated licensing and regulatory regime. Of course, no-one is suggesting that we will be threatened by a rebellion any time soon. But political control of the state broadcaster remains an issue.
In his keynote address, Commonwealth Secretary-General Don Mckinnon pointed to recent research that shows a clear correlation between democracy, a free media, and economic growth. "The media has enormous power and potential...there must be responsibility on the part of both media and government to exercise that power with freedom and wisdom. That’s what governance is all about."
He added that there was general agreement today that state ownership of the media has no place in a democracy, and observed that the Bahamas was currently seeking to convert ZNS into a public service broadcaster. That was a reference to Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham's remarks at the conference on Wednesday.
Mr Ingraham recalled ZNS' failure as a government monopoly to provide free and fair political coverage prior to the 1992 general election that brought the Free National Movement to power for the first time. As a result, that first FNM government began licensing private radio stations within two months of coming to office.
Now, in addition to ZNS, there are 12 private radio licenses, a dedicated parliamentary channel, a community information channel on cable, and a private television station. And the FNM was recently re-elected with a mandate to complete the liberalisation of Bahamian broadcasting by transforming ZNS into a non-commercial service funded by corporate sponsorships and endowments in addition to government grant.
Throughout its 70-year history ZNS has been a creature of the state. Political control has been a hot-button issue ever since legislation was passed in 1956 to pave the way for television, which was introduced some 20 years later. Before 1956, broadcasting was part of the Telecoms Department, which launched ZNS radio in 1936 as a weather service.
Currently, the Public Utilities Commission regulates telecoms and a separate body was to have been created to oversee broadcasting. But the industry has moved faster than the politicians, and experts now say the entire regulatory system must be modernised. Essentially, this means a single independent regulator to govern a converged communications sector.
Mr Inghraham acknowledged as much in his speech to the CBA last week: "Much of what we seek to achieve in broadcasting," he said, "requires us to update and improve our regulation of the sector, bringing our standards up to international levels and thereby providing safeguards against abuse."
But he also argued that it would be much better for broadcasters and publishers to develop their own industry codes, to be applied through a self-regulating media council. This approach was echoed by Patrick Cozier, head of the Barbados-based Caribbean Broadcasting Union.
"There is an ongoing transition from state-run to public service broadcasting throughout the region," Cozier said, "together with the creation of independent regulatory authorities that have media representation. There is also a need for all countries in the region to enact freedom of information laws, whereas currently only a minority have them, and we want a debate on licensing - which can be applied punitively to broadcasters."
This debate has already taken place in the two biggest CARICOM countries, Trinidad and Jamaica. Both governments scrapped their old state-run broadcasters years ago and set up new public service broadcasters in 2006. The Bahamas has been talking about following suit - although without upsetting the ZNS apple cart.
And like ZNS, those old state companies in Trinidad and Jamaica - although created somewhat in the image of the BBC - never really had the public interest at heart. They were micro-managed by politicians and their agents. In effect, broadcasting was a prize of public office, and both companies were eventually divested due to lack of credibility and loss of financial support.
We could go on ad nauseam about ZNS abuses over the years. The refusal to play the songs of Bahamian musicians whose lyrics didn't suit the party in power. The arbitrary and capricious business practices. The political hiring. The gross lack of accountability. General Manager Charles Carter presenting as a PLP candidate while hosting the public affairs programme "Focus". The total exclusion of independent voices. The childish propaganda masquerading as news. The endless replaying of "Roots" during election campaigns. And on and on.
To put an end to this dismal record, the government now wants to make ZNS a true public service broadcaster. What does that mean? Well, the British communications regulator, Ofcom, has just completed a five-year study in the UK. Its updated definition of public service broadcasting boils down to this: programming that deepens our understanding of the world; encourages us to learn; strengthens our cultural identity; and makes us aware of different cultures and views.
The BBC, funded by a TV set license, remains the cornerstone of public service broadcasting in the UK, although there are now other non-profit channels that are commercially-funded. The Ofcom report calls for more clarity in terms of industry regulation, corporate governance and accountability for public funds. One of the chief goals is to make sure that the BBC spend its money well and delivers good value for the public.
For a small country like the Bahamas, with only about $40 million a year in total ad spending, funding is a big problem. And the less credible and less accountable you are as an information provider, the less revenue you stand to earn. As Professor Fackson Banda of Rhodes University in South Africa pointed out at the CBA conference:
"Most media practice is caught between ‘the hammer of the state and the anvil of the market’. The ‘hammer of the state’ in post-postcolonial societies endures in at least three ways: the archaic policy and legal regime; the absence of enabling legislation; and the extra-legal manoeuvres of the state."
For example, in many countries (including our own) civil servants are legally prohibited from giving out information, state broadcasters are in the service of ruling parties, there is no legal right to information, restrictive libel laws discourage free reporting and debate, and political strategies such as the withdrawal of government advertising can be used to control the media.
"The ‘anvil of the market’ is intricately bound up in the 1990s mantra of globalisation," Professor Banda said, "which presented a different set of possibilities for media regulation...Media content is increasingly being shaped by the demands of advertisers and sponsors rather than public interest factors. In fact, it might be argued that such market-driven media content tends towards the ‘tabloidisation’ of broadcasting, targeted at satisfying the lowest common denominator."
He went on to outline some specific roles that public service media can perform to enhance civil society. These included producing reliable analyses on current affairs; inspiring loyalty to democratic values; and promoting good governance.
To play these roles effectively requires autonomy from both the state and the market, and a broadcasting environment that treats the public as citizens rather than consumers. In other words, it is not about delivering an audience to advertisers; it is about delivering programming to citizens - and counting eyeballs is only one means to that end.
What we see on ZNS today is the same news and information that appears on all the private stations and in the newspapers - so why should we be paying taxes for it? What we should actually be seeing is a perspective and a commentary on the events that are unfolding around us, as well as programming that communicates what it means to be a Bahamian and educates us on important issues.
In 2006 this column contributed the following to this nascent debate: "To recreate ZNS as an authentic public affairs service would require strict legislative guarantees of autonomy, and the station would have to be operated by a genuinely independent authority, with a cross-section of community representation. The right managers would have to be found, and a massive firewall would be needed to deter interfering politicos."
Hopefully, that is what we will get some day.
•The Commonwealth Broadcasting Association was founded to promote public service broadcasting in the former British Empire. Delegates to the Nassau conference included the chiefs of regional broadcasting unions, top managers and regulators from around the world, and senior representatives of organisations like the World Bank, Amnesty International, the International Federation of Journalists, and the Commonwealth Secretariat. This is the second global CBA conference that the Bahamas has hosted. The first was in 1988.