Okay, I’ve given the Media Council Act 2010 a first look over. I still want to compare it with similar legislation in the UK, the Caribbean, South Africa, Singapore and New Zealand, but I figured I would give my first thoughts on it.
Do we need such legislation?
The first question that needs to be answered is whether we actually need this legislation. I don’t think there is any question that historically the established media, namely the Royal Gazette, has been hostile to the PLP (and by extension organised labour) and has had a racial bias. Things have certainly improved since those days, but there are certainly more improvements that could be done and these should be encouraged. Whether or not this legislation will facilitate this is another question.
It is true that similar legislation exists in other countries, both in liberal democracies like the UK, New Zealand and South Africa, psuedo-democracies like Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan, and in full on authoritarian states like North Korea, Iran and the People’s Republic of China. It is not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing, and, as with all things, the devil is in the detail and context is everything.
Personally I don’t have a problem with the idea and think it can be progressive, but it is something that should be approached with great care, bearing in mind the historical and increasing mistrust between different sectors of our society.
Membership of the Council
One of the biggest concerns that have been raised is the membership composition of the proposed council. Section 5 of the legislation covers this and states that:
(1) The Council shall be comprised of twelve members as follows –
(a) five members elected by representatives of the local media;
(b) six members appointed by the Governor after consultation with the Premier, who shall first have consulted with the Opposition Leader; and;
(c) One other member, who shall be the Chairman of the Council, appointed by the Governor in his discretion.
(2) Members appointed under subsection (1)(b) and (c) shall be persons who are independent of the media.
(3) The election or appointment of a member is for a period of three years and a member may be elected or appointed for susbsequent periods of three years but not for any two consecutive periods of three years.
(4) Vacancies in membership of the Council shall be filled in the same manner as set out in subsection (1) and shall be for the remainder of the period for which the original member was elected or appointed.
(5) The members of the Council shall be elected or appointed within three months after this Act comes into operation.
Some people have raised concern that this system provides the Government (regardless of which Party is in power) a majority vote and thus undermines the concept of free speech (theoretically) by giving the Government of the day veto powers over the various media. I can certainly see how that is the case, especially with the distrust that pervades our society, even if this mechanism of appointment is similar to many other government boards.
What I would like to see is for every major party (that is, a party that has at least 10% of the popular vote on the basis of the last election at the time of forming the Council) to elect, from its day-to-day governing body (so in this case the Central Committee of the PLP and its equivalent from the UBP and the BDA) a member each to the council (and this member not necessarily being an MP or Senator). So in this case we have three members right away.
In addition to this I think that the labour unions should have a representative, at least one each from the BIU and the BPSU/TUC (last I checked the BIU was not a member of the Bermuda TUC). I would also like to see the Womens Resource Centre and CURB (Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda) each elect a representative to the Council. An argument could also be raised that Amnesty International Bermuda should be given a seat at the table, or, alternatively, that a representative from the Human Rights Commission should have a seat. I think it would also make sense for a representative from the Bermuda Bar and the Bermuda Chamber of Commerce should both have a representative as well.
So, the above would provide the Council with ten members. Add to that the five members elected by the local media, as set out in the Act, and we have a total of fifteen members that I think are representative of the stakeholders in this issue. It also provides for a wide array of different viewpoints and sure ensure a more balanced position on matters of relevance, without being open to accusations of government interference with free speech. It is also more democratic, to an extent, especially as it relates to the political parties and labour unions, and in general the representatives can be held accountable by their respective institutions.
Also, by having an uneven number, this formula prevents deadlock, and allows for a slightly larger number of opinions to be represented by a quorum of 60%, being a minimum of ten members.
Financial Provisions & Miscellaneous
It is not clear from Section 9, Part (2) whether the Council will be funded entirely by contributions from the local media, or only partially funded. I think it is unfair for the local media to entirely fund the Council and would argue that a better system would see the local media funding, at a minimum, 50% of it, with the remainder being made up by Government. The Government funding however should be similar to that of the Ombudsman’s office, funded but independent of the Government, thus reducing the potential for interference.
My only other concern relates to Section 15, Part (3c/d) which states that the Council may ‘order a respondent in the print/broadcast media to refrain from printing/broadcasting anything (or any news, or comment on news, that is the subject of the complaint.’ I understand the reasoning behind this, but it strikes me as having the potential to stymie the publication of certain news stories. I suppose this would depend on the legal wordings of the Code of Practice in general.
I’ll try and read over relevant legislation from other countries, at least other Commonwealth liberal democracies, and see if there is anything else I should add. VexedBermoothes has some thoughts on the legislation as well (plus a link to a pdf copy of the legislation), as does Politics and Wishful Thinking. The BIAW forum also has a thread on the topic.