If the Cabinet has a good reason for repeatedly turning down the Maha Sabha’s radio licence application, the country is yet to hear it. In 2002, the Maha Sabha headed to court after Citadel Limited received a radio licence within two weeks of applying for it. Citadel Ltd is owned by well-known PNM activist Louis Lee Sing and, admittedly, the situation was a peculiar one, in that Lee Sing already had a working radio station but fell out with the co-owner of the frequency he was operating under. Of course, that in itself does not speak well for the manner in which Mr Lee Sing began his operation. But, be that as it may, it is understandable why the Cabinet may have wanted to fast track Lee Sing’s application.
However, two questions arise. One, would someone not favoured by the ruling PNM have received this consideration? And, two, why has the Maha Sabha application not received, not even favourable, but fair treatment? When the Government lost its first round in court, the politic thing to do would have been to grant the licence. Instead, the Government appealed the High Court judgment. But this only led to the embarrassment of having the Appeal Court issue a judgment which sternly rebuked the Cabinet. “We found that the appellant’s right to equality before the law and equal treatment by a public authority in the exercise of its functions pursuant to section 4 (b) and (d) of the Constitution had been infringed,” said the judges.
The court recommended that Cabinet consider the application within 28 days. This was duly done, and the application rejected on the basis of a technicality - to wit, the submission of detailed financial information in support of the application. Maha Sabha Secretary General Sat Maharaj, however, has argued that this objection runs counter to the Appeal Court’s judgment. Now the Maha Sabha is to take its case all the way to the Privy Council. It seems passing strange, however, that the Government has allowed matters to come to this pass. Moreover, the issue has been exacerbated by Lee Sing now having started operating on a second radio frequency.
The situation has allowed Mr Maharaj to claim that the PNM is biased against his organisation in particular and Hindus in general. This is not the kind of fire that the Patrick Manning administration should want to add fuel to, especially at a time when Chief Justice Satnarine Sharma is about to face a tribunal to decide whether he should be removed and Opposition leader Basdeo Panday is going to court on corruption charges. It is this situation which makes this an opportune time for the Cabinet to back down and, unless it has cogent reasons, grant the Maha Sabha licence. We cannot, however, imagine what such reasons might be. If it is that the PNM fears anti-government rhetoric, well, there are already radio stations doing that, just as there are radio stations which are staunchly pro-PNM.
Nor can the Government argue, as it has done in the past, that it is against State policy to grant broadcast licences to religious organisations, since there is already one full gospel station and, indeed, Lee Sing’s I95.5 is also a gospel station after 8 o’clock every week night. In the present climate, the Cabinet needs to give this issue some attention. After all, it seems likely that the Privy Council will uphold the Appeal Court ruling - in which case the Maha Sabha will get its licence and the Manning regime will, not for the first time, end up looking as though personal bias affects its judgment even in relatively minor matters.
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