My tuppence worth on the TV license saga

tv-license-495x330Unless you are driving or operating a machine that requires great attention in which case you shouldn’t be reading this piece at this time, bear with me and let’s play this game. Try shutting your eyes gently after reading through this point and cast your mind back, way back, back into time.

It’s Sunday and you and your family just had your evening meal. It’s one of those days that you and your siblings rush and finish your house chores and home works early so you could book a seat behind the screen. You are either fortunate to be the child of the landlord who owns the only television set in the compound house or your parents are tenants. Either way, to avoid the rush, you’ve booked a comfortable spot and sat patiently through one of the most ‘annoying’ TV programmes ever simply because you have no idea what they are discussing, regardless of its national relevance. I’m talking about “Talking Point”. At last, you’ve been rewarded and Talking Point is over. What’s next..Akan Drama..the likes of Obra and Osofo Dazdie take turns to put you in a good mood to start your week afresh.

For non Akan speakers, you all loved Thursdays simply for the high quality performance by the cast on Thursday Theatre where the likes of Augustine Abbey aka Great Idikoko and Edinam Atasti among others treat you to wonderful theatrical performances. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the golden days of GBC-GTV where every Ghanaian is proud of our state broadcaster.

Many would argue that GBC-GTV was popular at that time because it was the only station. True, but I’m also going to bet my last coin that GTV could have effectively competed and outshone any of these latter day TV stations with the content they offered then. Even their commercials were amazing. No wonder  some some of them are still stuck in our heads to date. The likes of ‘Pioneer Nails’ ‘Ever Ready Battery’ ‘Goil’ and my favorite ‘National Lotteries’ were simply master pieces of creativity which where a delight to watch.. These were the days people queued at the offices of GBC to pay their TV licenses.

Fast forward to 2015 and the state broadcaster is limping. While even private stations were still operating round the clock, GBC was forced to cut down transmission hours and close at 12 midnight. In line with its constitutional mandate, the National Media Commission (NMC) takes up the challenge at reviving the  state broadcaster and called for the reintroduction of an already existing TV license law to support GBC in various ways.

Myself and a few that I know of are asking what changed over the years for GBC to arrive its current state. This leads me to the second part of my piece where I delve into some few grey areas with the TV license saga. Thanks for reading on:

TV license, a regressive taxation?

The Television Licensing Act-1966 (NLCD 89)

was passed in 1966 by which time the whole Ghana had only one TV station which was operated by GBC. It thus made sense to promulgate a TV license law then to support public broadcast.  Let’s ask ourselves that in 1966 how many Ghanaians owned TV sets and what class did they belong to in 1966? It looks to me as if having the economic capital to own a TV set in 1966 meant you could conveniently pay the TV license fee since TV set was more  seen as a luxury at that time.

Two scores and nine years later today, television is no more a luxury and has no prestige with it as before. Someone’s  aunt buys her mother in the village a TV set to keep her company among other reasons in the house. Her mother technically owns the TV set but doesn’t work and if she and countless people who find themselves in a similar situation are forced to pay the same amount of TV license to GBC not for watching but simply for owning, just like the rich owner of that huge building  at East Legon, then it smacks of some sense of ripping off the poor and a form of regressive taxation.

Today,  thanks to the initiative of all private media operators, our media industry is swamped with lots of radio and TV stations as well as newspapers. All of these stations are in their own ways, though private, also performing a wonderful job of some public broadcast. Take the recent Ebola outbreak for instance. The WHO lauded Ghanaian media for the job it did in sensitizing the public about the outbreak. This is the hook that leads me into the next phase of this piece concerning the involvement of the Ghana Independent Broadcasters Association ( GIBA) and its place in the TV license saga.

4% proceeds to GIBA?

When I read a about the possible re introduction of TV license for GBC-GTV, I was expecting GIBA to at least raise an issue with the case since it was going to give GBC- GTV an unfair advantage over the independent broadcasters in Ghana. Boy was I wrong. No sooner had my curiosity about GIBA’s silence settled in than the National Media Commission (NMC) announced that it was going to give 4% of the proceeds to GIBA. So much for the idea of protecting the rights of independent broadcasters in Ghana huh? Since GIBA was silent about the offer its safe to assume that they welcomed the idea.

Who wouldn’t? I have a question though?Could it be argued that GIBA now expects us to pay them for a purely commercial services being undertaken by them? Would GIBA have still been pleased if the NMC had not included them in the disbursement and decided it was going to keep all the money between the GBC and themselves? Don’t get me wrong, we are pleased with the services GIBA are providing us including the occasional public service which easily pass for corporate social responsibility as well. That notwithstanding, asking Ghanaians to pay GIBA for their service is tantamount to asking someone to pay a food seller to sell to you their food.

It’s ludicrous.  How could we be made to pay for commercial broadcasting by private stations and institutions. By the way, the last time I checked Article 173 of the constitution didn’t seem to give NMC the ‘right’ to decide how private and independent stations in the country should be run. I’m not a lawyer but here is what it says. Pardon my ignorance if it’s nowhere close.. Subject to article 167 of this Constitution, the National Media Commission shall not exercise any control or direction over the professional functions of a person engaged in the production of newspapers or other means of communication.(Article 173). It might not be anywhere close to barring the NMC from judging how independent broadcasters in Ghana are funded but the point is plain and simple. Ghanaians should not be made to pay for private broadcast.

Reasons for TV license.

Listening to the various discussions on radio about the TV license issue sand following same on social media and other platforms So far, proponents of it seem to give two major reasons in favor of  paying TV license to GBC. These are:

  1. Because it’s law.

2.  To help GBC wean itself from governmental subvention and influence.

Under normal circumstances, one would expect that calls for the the review and re introduction of the already existing TV license law which was initiated by the National Media Commission, Graphic Communications Group and Ghana independent Broadcasters Association  and subsequently passed into lay by parliament would not attract such debates from the public. However, such is what Habermas informs us as transpiring in the public sphere; the public debate and formulate ideas and opinions about issues that concern them. Hence my two cents on the issue.

I start by asking some questions here.

Firstly,  are we saying simply by reviving an over 40 year old law and imposing it on the people, it must be accepted without any proper justification? Secondly, how can GBC wean itself off government completely when  the director of GBC, Major Gen. Don Chebe (Rtd) claimed that their funding style was fashioned after that of South African Broadcasting Corporation ( SABC )which  goes by the  ‘hybrid system’ of funding where the government would support GBC while at the same time it collects  TV license from Ghanaians?

Also, we are told on several platforms that the programmes of GBC will improve after we start paying TV license. However,  the guarantee that the programmes and content of GBC are going to be improved is missing as we are told this by the Executive  Secretary of the NMC, Mr. George Sarpong concerning if people watch GTV or not; “Mr Sarpong said the claim that some do not watch GTV and, therefore, should not be compelled to pay TV licence fees is also not founded on any solid grounds…He indicated that the fees are not being collected from people who watch the state broadcaster alone but those who watch TV and do so regardless of the channel.

Mr. Sarpong in that same news item was quoted as saying: “…TV licences will be collected whether or not the sets are being used.”

Two quick points on the above words of Mr. Sarpong.

  1. I’m baffled as to how the argument of payment of TV license to improve GTV programmes is tenable when there’s no linkage between ( as per what we are told above) paying TV license and watching content on the said station. In effect, it looks like we are being told to ‘pay TV license and get good programmes but don’t hold anyone accountable for this promise’. This is because there’s no guaranteed assurance as it stands that binds them to improve their programmes. Sounds like we are only taxing people for seeking gratification from television or just by owning a TV set. Couldn’t there be any other way to sustain our good old GTV? GBC unlike the other private stations operate in all the ten regions of Ghana. This much is true. The question then is, shouldn’t this rather be a strength and powerful capital for the GBC to package itself well and attract more commercials which they already run making them not even qualifying as a public broadcaster in the first place? Again, can’t GBC-GTV package its programme well and ask people to pay per view?
  1. Dear Mr. Sarpong, don’t you think that as it stands, there are countless number of Ghanaians with spoilt TV sets that are just being used as decorations in people’s homes? Asking such people to pay just by owning a TV set will thus not be fair.  Again, Unless I’m otherwise mistaken, your position on the law that once you own a TV set you must pay TV license is a it a bit erroneous since section 1(2) of the TELEVISION LICENSING ACT – 1966 (NLCD 89) had this to say the last time I checked “where a television receiving set is found in any premises occupied by any person, that person shall, unless he proves the contrary, be presumed to use the television receiving set.”

Unless this portion of the law has been amended, it is only prudent to let Ghanaians know of the option of proving whether the TV set is in use or otherwise. Again, I stand to be corrected.

Concluding, how is that a TV repairer is asked to pay TV license not for even owning a TV but just for being a TV repairer? If this TV repairer owns a TV set at home, it means s/he is going to pay twice. This doesn’t add up!

All things being equal, if indeed there are other administrative challenges at GBC and this is not addressed, we could pay a million bucks for TV license but it would be like using a basket to fetch water. Cos 90!

From the other side, GBC might have a case to collect TV license but how come the law was rushed through and imposed on the necks of Ghanaians without adequate time for debate and public education which would have ironed out all these rough edges.

Kudos to Tarzan Dr. Wereko  Brobbey for his one man campaign against this law. Again, just as he set the pace with radio EYE as the first private radio, he’s indeed setting the pace for fighting this course on behalf of many voiceless Ghanaians.