Prime Minister disagrees with the CRTC

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is locked in a bitter battle with the country’s broadcast regulator and that has some worried the Tory regime is attempting to dictate the rules of the game to the regulator.

The federal government has attempted to block two major decisions by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) — which has enormous influence on how the radio, TV and telecommunications industries operate in the country — and the government has now appointed someone close to the party as vice chairman of the regulator.

On Feb. 17, a House of Commons committee voted to demand that the new CRTC vice chair come to Ottawa to answer questions about why he’s the best man for this key job at the commission. Opposition members of parliament are up in arms over this appointment.

The prime minister’s office admitted it was directly involved in picking Tom Pentefountas vice chair of the CRTC earlier this month. Pentefountas is the former president of Quebec’s the Action Democratique, a party with close links to the federal Tories.

Also this month, federal Industry Minister Tony Clement said the government would order the CRTC to take another look at its recent decision to bring in usage-based billing for smaller Internet service providers. That CRTC decision, which would lead to higher Internet bills for thousands, led to major public outcry, with over 300,000 Canadians signing a petition against the ruling. Just days after Clement rebuked the CRTC, the regulator’s chair Konrad von Finckenstein said the commish would delay the decision by 60 days and take another look at it “of its own initiative.”

Harper’s government and the CRTC are also locked in battle over the wireless company Globalive. The CRTC ruled that Globalive, which is primarily funded by Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris’ company Orascom, could not operate in Canada because it did not fulfill Canadian ownership requirements.

Then in December 2009, the federal cabinet overturned that CRTC decision and let Globalive launch the Wind Mobile wireless service in Canada.

In early February, a federal court struck down that cabinet decision, with the judge siding with the original CRTC decision. But Industry Minister Clement said the government will appeal the court decision — an appeal that allows Globalive to continue operating in Canada.

“It’s a pattern of over-ruling the Commission,” says Ian Morrison from Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, a watchdog body that fights for Canadian programming. “And if you do it too often, you won’t get competent people to work with the CRTC. It undermines the point of this arm’s-length body.”

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