Turks and Caicos Islands House of Assembly building in Grand Turk
By Caribbean News Now contributor
PROVIDENCIALES, Turks and Caicos Islands -- It seems that the resolve of the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) Integrity Commission is about to be tested as a result of Monday’s House of Assembly session, when opposition member and deputy speaker of the house, Josephine Connolly, excused herself from voting or chairing the committee to review proposed new broadcast legislation.
The Broadcast Bill is a move to strengthen the TCI ownership requirements of local media and the bill was presented as one that would protect islanders’ interests. However, it was revealed that a minister could waive the local participation requirement and allow a foreign firm to provide all or most of the capital to own a broadcasting station.
The issue of foreign ownership was recently in the news when it was reported that regional telecoms provider Digicel, the local operations of which are run by the son of ruling Progressive National Party (PNP) backbench member Norman Saunders, was interested in buying a local television station WIV4.
According to Connolly, her interest in a local broadcast station appeared to conflict with her parliamentary obligation to debate, and support or deny support for a bill dealing with the ownership, regulation and potential taxation of local broadcasting that could affect her business interest.
She reported further that she had raised the matter with the Integrity Commission, which advised her to not take part or she would risk being disqualified as an elected member of parliament.
The rules provide that any parliamentarian who ignores their personal business interests or the interests of their immediate family, including spouses, siblings or children, and who nevertheless debates and votes on legislative matters potentially affecting that particular business, may be permanently disqualified from sitting in the House of Assembly.
Connolly said that, while she disagreed with these rules, she would still abide by them.
This has now shifted the spotlight to Norman Saunders, whose son EJ Saunders is the CEO of the local Digicel operations. It is believed that EJ Saunders may have a minority ownership interest in the local operation.
Also potentially involved is Premier Rufus Ewing, who is known to own a Digicel-related firm.
Also possibly conflicted is finance minister Washington Misick, whose niece owned or owns an interest in a cable TV operation in the family islands. All three PNP elected members debated and voted on the bill, which has yet to pass.
Immigration and border control minister, Don-Hue Gardiner, who is Misick's nephew, admitted a conflict and excused himself.
The territory’s attention will now focus on the integrity of the Integrity Commission itself, which has effectively already issued a ruling with the Connolly decision. Given that five sitting members of parliament, including four on the government side, appear to be conflicted, this probably spells doom for the legislation and, if the Integrity Commission follows its own ruling, could result in the disqualification of three sitting MPs that have not so far acknowledged a conflict of interest, including the premier himself, and new by-elections.