Reporters Without Borders today joined the South African National Editors' Forum (Sanef), the Media Institute of Southern Africa-South Africa (MISA-SA) and the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) in urging parliament to reject a bill proposed by the government that would open the way to censorship.
The Film and Publications Amendment Bill 2006 is currently being debated by the parliamentary subcommittee for Home Affairs before being submitted to the full parliament.
“In an increasingly free and open media environment, protection of the youngest and most sensitive viewers and readers is vital, but the South African government - whose relations with the media have declined sharply in the space of few years - should not take advantage of a sense of concern to try to restrict press freedom,” Reporters Without Borders said.
“We therefore call on the parliamentary committee to reject this draft of the bill and we urge the government to organise proper consultation with the journalistic community and civil society with the aim of forging agreement on a legitimate version,” the organisation added.
The 1996 Film and Publications Act, regulating distribution outlets for print and broadcast works and the categories of public at which they are targeted, contained a clause exempting the media which is suppressed in the amendment proposed by the ministry of home affairs. This would open the way to censorship of print and broadcast media by the Film and Publications Board.
The bill would permit exemptions for certain media, but it would mean submitting to a system of prior screening and authorisation by the board.
The media are already regulated by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa), while a Press Ombudsman supervises the print media for unprofessional conduct and a Broadcasting Complaints Commission performs the same role for radio and TV.
Aside from the fact that the bill would violate freedom of expression and the Icasa's independence, both of which are guaranteed by the Constitution, press freedom groups also criticise the lack of transparency in the way it was drafted. “We only learned on 7 August that the public consultation would end on 10 August,” FXI attorney Simon Delaney told Reporters Without Borders.
“Protecting children against harmful material is a sensitive issue in South African society at the moment, but we reject morality policing and censorship at the expense of freedom of information,” Delaney said.
The bill would censor abusive content, which is defined in section 16 (2) as “sexual conduct”, “propaganda for war”, “incitement to imminent violence” and “the advocacy of hatred based on any identifiable group characteristic.”
Delaney said FXI was concerned about the current situation, in which the government was adopting an increasingly conservative attitude towards social problems and displaying growing hostility towards the news media. “The gains the South African media made with the end of apartheid in 1994 are starting to be eroded,” he said.