— Calls for an all-inclusive, comprehensive dialogue
Another debate has again opened up between the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) and the Liberia Telecommunication Authority (LTA), which regulates the country’s telecommunication industry.
The issue this time around involves the recent pronouncement from LTA’s new chairperson, Madam Edwina Crump Zackpah, that her administration is taken aback by the proliferation of radio stations in the country without going through the proper channels, including the acquisition of permits from the Ministry of Information.
“Stations in Montserrado will pay under this new regime, US$300 for registration and US$3,000 as an annual fee each for them to operate, while other stations across the country will have a different fee too,” Zackpah said on Tuesday.
With the astronomical amount charged, PUL has raised alarm and called on the LTA to muster courage and accept dialogue in order to amicably discuss the way forward, without media entities having to bear more than what they are capable of responding to.
According to the PUL in an open letter, if the Liberia Telecommunications Authority continues with hostility against the broadcast sector, the policy will fail and radios will still be on air without the government realizing a penny.
“Inputs from all the forums have been collated by the Internews Liberia but, unfortunately, all the stakeholders’ views were disregarded and an unrealistic licensing regime that does not represent the performance of the economy [is] presented. This public policy must be thoughtful of the economy of the media in Liberia and actions must be geared toward keeping the broadcast industry alive than contribute to the demise of a major tool for national development,” the PUL letter, under the signature of its president, Charles B. Coffey, reads.
The PUL president is worried by LTA’s pronouncement about the increase in the fees to operate FM radio frequencies since the country economy is not doing well, and it is the same government that owes media entities much money, extremely delays to pay, even though it has no consideration when it comes to collecting taxes from the same media houses.
The PUL letter further added that validation of the draft LTA FM Frequencies Policy will allow an expert review of individual frequencies as contained in the expiration announcement of December 2019 which can be rationally aligned with the stipulation of regulatory fees consistent with the financial soundless of media entities, in this case, radio stations.
In this light, the PUL said it is seeking explanations for the recent opening of new radio stations in Monrovia owned by stalwarts of the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) and businessmen (Bana FM), Atlantic Broadcast Corporation (ABC), Strong FM, and Spoon FM/TV while Punch FM’s application remains stalled.
“Again, the PUL is available for a meeting which will set up a larger stakeholders’ validation conference with the aim of approving the draft LTA FM Regulation, which suits the prevailing conditions facing the broadcast sector as a business.
“The requirement for license application should be tailored in line with the interests of Liberians and transparent — the LTA must tell the public exactly why it grants an independent radio license to one broadcast aspirant over another with an accompanying reason rooted in the public interest,” PUL added.
The PUL letter further called for a reprieve period to give radio stations time to continue serving the public good and that fines should not be imposed retroactively knowing that LTA herself is negligent of the current broadcast frequencies confusion in Liberia because no one stakeholder is to blame for delinquency in license payment for the immediate past.
“The application process for a broadcast license must be made publicly transparent. Availability of all licenses should be made on a plan of available spectrum across the nation, as well as thought for profitability in accordance with the status of the local economies (i.e. 10 licenses available in Montserrado, 8 in Bong, 3 in Grand Bassa, etc). The plan would include a frequency assignment (e.g. Monrovia FM 88.7; FM 101.5; FM 97.9, etc.) to ensure businesses will not broadcast on the same frequency as their competitors,” the PUL said.
Despite the PUL letter, the LTA’s boss has previously justified that the five-year license under the new FM Regulations will help address all issues, including compliance, sustainability, and efficiency to enhance governance, operations, and management of the broadcast sector.
“Majority of the radio stations are operating illegally. A lot of them do not have active licenses right now,” Zackpah said, adding, “However, I don’t think anybody should be afraid of being shut down as long as they follow the regulations.”