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URCA: Laws needed to stop political interference at ZNS

The Utilities Regulation and Competition Authority(URCA)has argued for laws to be enacted preventing political interference at the state-owned broadcaster ZNS.

URCA also called for lawsensuring”absolute editorial independence covering all of its programs and services.”

The recommendations are contained in a newly released consultation document on public service broadcasting(PSB)in The Bahamas prepared by URCA.

The Broadcasting Act, and other relevant legislation related to ZNS, give the government direct control over the station. The government appoints the ZNS board. The minister responsible for broadcasting can exercise direct control over content at the broadcaster.

“The minister has scope to influence creative and editorial decisions, leading to risks both of politically-biased programing and of censorship,”said URCA.

Both the Free National Movement(FNM)and the Progressive Liberal Party(PLP)have been accused of using ZNS to disseminate political propaganda while in office.

“Editorial and operational decisions made by the management of ZNS must not be subject to the influence of the minister, other members of Parliament or public servants, advertisers or other public interests or other stakeholders,”said URCA.

“Specifically, the minister should have no powers to prohibit the broadcasting of any programs or subject matter within a program or to influence operational matters(such as advertising rates).”

The government cut ZNS’subsides in half this fiscal year, leading to more than 70 workers being terminated in October. The subsidy change is a part of the transition of ZNS to public service broadcasting.

URCA also made recommendations for the absolute separation of functions between the ZNS board and its executive management team.

URCA suggests the ZNS board be comprised of non-executive and executive members. Under the proposal, the government would still appoint non-executive board members for fixed terms coinciding with the duration of the legislature. The leader of the opposition would be consulted on the appointment of the chair of the board.

URCA argues that the board should determine long-term strategies and policies at ZNS, along with setting annual budgets and appointing the general manager and the remaining members of the corporation’s executive management team.

The executive management team at ZNS should be responsible for the day-to-day management of ZNS, URCA said, rather than the board.

“Terms of reference for the board should clearly distinguish the responsibilities of the board and the executive management,”said URCA.

Further rules may be needed to prevent governments from appointing political operatives to the board in an effort to control the broadcaster.

URCA is also encouraging the government to put more money into ZNS to allow it to fulfill its planned PSB mandate. If ZNS is to be independent of the government, a funding mechanism would be needed preventing the government from exercising control over the broadcaster by withholding funds.

URCA recommends the continuance of the current model of state subsidy and advertising for ZNS as means of funding.

The regulator explored the imposition of a license fee, industry tax or Pay-TV subscription levy as alternative means of funding for the broadcaster. However, URCA noted that the imposition of new taxes and fees would be unpopular.

In 2009/2010, URCA noted that unaudited total income at ZNS was$14.7 million. The government provided$8.5 million(56 percent of total income)of this funding. Advertising and sponsorship brought in$5 million(35 percent of total income).

“Funding levels for ZNS should be determined through multi-year(e.g. triennial 3-year)settlements. This would provide two important benefits relative to the current method of annual budget allocations. First, it reduces the frequency of political intervention, helping ZNS to maintain its editorial independence,”said URCA.

“Second, it enables both the government and ZNS to take a more strategic, medium-term view of PSB delivery by extending the planning horizons. The enhanced certainty and security it would give ZNS should enable it to operate more flexibly and efficiently.”

URCA is further calling for rules mandating that ZNS be accountable to Parliament on an annual basis. This has not occurred in the recent past.

“On operational matters, ZNS should be required to demonstrate the appropriate and efficient use of public funds. This can be accomplished through the timely preparation of annual audited financial statements, which would be incorporated in an annual report,”said URCA.

“On programing matters ZNS should be required to outline its priorities for the forthcoming year and to demonstrate how it has delivered against its PSB remit for the preceding year, through a statement of programme policy and annual review to be published at the start of each year.”

The document, which is published on URCA’s website, allows for further input into how PSB should be developed. Interested persons and stakeholders have the opportunity to respond to various issues URCA will consider prior to publication of the final report. Responses should be submitted to URCA by February 25.

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