Newspapers warned

Government hints at possibility of licensing printed press

A blow up between Leader of Government Business McKeeva Bush and a local newspaper publisher has led to a call for more responsible press coverage in the Cayman Islands – one way or another.

Mr. Bush even suggested the possibility of licensing newspapers following what he described as an attempt to ‘blackmail’ the government by the Cayman Net News.

‘We are not scared of criticism,’ Mr. Bush told members of the press gathered at a Cabinet press briefing last week. ‘That’s what the press is there for.’

‘I have long advocated for a real…press association in this country to police…themselves. That has not happened. I am going to sit again with the members of the press…there needs to be some guidelines, there needs to be some ethics and there needs to be some standards set that are not in place right now for some people.’

‘If the media cannot police themselves, then real remedies will have to be found,’ Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Bush pointed out that the Information Communications Technology Authority licenses radio and television broadcasts here, but neither print nor website news operations are subject to the same licenses.

‘While the television and radios have to follow certain guidelines, the written news don’t,’ Mr. Bush said.

Licenses issued by the communications authority provide certain requirements for the holders of those licenses such as; devoting certain time on their broadcasts to educational, minority or cultural interests; certain times at which certain advertisements can be aired, and how much time per hour advertisements can take up.

Although communications authority licenses do not apply to the printed press, newspapers are required to obtain and renew trade and business licenses as are other companies in the Cayman Islands.

It was unclear what exactly Mr. Bush had in mind when speaking about further licenses for print media, and the government has issued no proposals about it.

Television and radio licenses are policed by various government agencies in other countries.

In the US, the Federal Communications Commission can suspend or revoke licenses where the license-holder has, for instance, aired pornographic material or where certain curse words were used on a public signal. The agency also polices competition and antitrust issues. In Britain, Ofcom, the Office of Communications, has roughly the same responsibility.

The idea of licensing broadcasts stems from the fact that, in most cases, broadcasters use limited-access frequencies that, under terms of law, are considered to ‘belong to the public.’ Since two signals generally can’t operate on the same frequency, some regulation is required.

Newspapers that are printed on private press operations are considered differently under those laws. Little exists in the way of Internet regulation thus far in either the US or the UK.

‘Blackmail’

Mr. Bush’s charges of ‘blackmail’ by the Cayman Net News were made following a 13 July editorial in that newspaper that discussed an ‘inclusionary communications policy.’

The editorial referred to the previous United Democratic Party administration as ‘an autocratic style of government, replete with disputed individual decisions and commitments that were then forced upon a surprised Cabinet and/or boards of statutory authorities or government-owned companies.

‘It is therefore with considerable concern that we detect the beginnings of that same style in the new UDP government,’ the editorial stated.

Mr. Bush was adamant that he did not accept the editorial as fair comment. Rather, he said that the editorial was critical of the current government because it had not approved a public relations contract with the Net News’ sister company, MCM Consulting.

‘He (referring to Net News publisher Desmond Seales) did write us an offer, a proposal, for us to hire him and we simply said we would consider,’ Mr. Bush said. ‘But you need to make it more clear what you want, rather than an open cheque.’

In response to Caymanian Compass questions, Mr. Seales stated that his company did indeed make an offer for media communications management services. Mr. Seales said his company, MCM, was invited to submit a proposal to Mr. Bush’s administration. He has provided the Compass with a copy of that proposal.

‘Our instructions from Mr. Bush…following MCM’s suggested strategy as to how the press release, timing and content in connection with the announced $74 million deficit and this was produced in a narrative format for dissemination instead of a two-page ad booked with accompanying fiscal charts,’ Mr. Seales wrote in an e-mailed response to Compass questions. ‘Even though Cayman Net News lost revenue owing to the cancellation of these ads, I was comfortable that this was the best format to engage the public through all the media.’

Mr. Seales also referred to Mr. Bush’s suggestion to licence newspapers as ‘absolute nonsense.’

‘All the media professionals here who are responsible for dissemination of the news take their roles seriously and…in my view, will not embellish any report for self-serving reasons.’

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