Should ZNS exist at all?
URCA, the national communications regulator, released an impressive document on public service broadcasting on New Year’s Eve. The regulator is soliciting opinions from the public via the consultation document on the future of ZNS.
We advise all Bahamians concerned about the evolution of our democracy to read it. The document is on URCA’s website.
With the government having cut half of the broadcaster’s funding for this fiscal year, ZNS’future funding model is a major part of the consultation document.
URCA recommends the continuance of the current model of state subsidy and advertising for ZNS. However, the regulator seems partial to the imposition of a license fee, industry tax or Pay-TV subscription levy as alternative means of funding.
URCA, however, rightly acknowledges that levying any of these taxes on consumers or media companies would be unpopular. The taxes would be hated because ZNS is not perceived by many as a prized, desired or needed entity in the modern Bahamas.
ZNS has never been a public service broadcaster. As a state broadcaster it has existed to advance the interests of the government of the day. Public service broadcasters exist to advance Enlightenment and democratic principles. They exist to give voice to reason and the arts. They exist to ensure fairness is maintained.
ZNS has no such record.
Its main program on TV, the evening news, merely goes from one interview with a minister or government official to the next. In law the minister of broadcasting has control over ZNS. The government appoints its board.
ZNS does not exist to inform the public. It exists in order to keep its master in power.
With the rise of private broadcasting and the break up of the ZNS monopoly, the audience in The Bahamas has become fragmented. It has also been exposed to media products from various creators and from various viewpoints.
In this new environment and with more stations set to come ZNS has lost its exclusive place.
If, as URCA observed, the public does not want to fund ZNS through direct taxes, then it must be asked if ZNS should be funded via the public through taxes at all.
The provision of a radio signal reaching the entire country and the full provision of news on weekends and holidays are the final unique things done by ZNS. Once the private media expands to this point, there will be few good arguments remaining for the continuance of ZNS as it is currently constituted.
URCA has suggested enshrining in law a series of remedies preventing government interference at ZNS, including the provision that ZNS should be allowed”absolute editorial independence.”
The objective of these reforms is to make ZNS relevant to these times.
The government and URCA should continue to survey the public to determine if ZNS is still wanted in any form.
If it is, then it should only exist divorced from the government. It should also produce more quality programs, especially on TV, examining the Bahamian condition. For too long the TV news has been its only offering on television.
A continued ZNS would also have to learn to be responsive to its audience, embracing audience research in order to determine if anyone is watching, listening and liking what is produced.
If the government decides that it does not want to pursue radical reform at ZNS then it should do the honorable thing: it should end the dysfunctional corporation it has created.
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