DA blasts Internet 'censorship' Bill

Paula Gilbert
By Paula Gilbert, ITWeb telecoms editor.
Johannesburg, 20 Sept 2016
DA shadow minister of communications says the FBP Bill is a thinly-veiled attempt at Internet censorship, disguised as the protection of children against exposure to pornography.
DA shadow minister of communications says the FBP Bill is a thinly-veiled attempt at Internet censorship, disguised as the protection of children against exposure to pornography.

The Films and Publications Amendment Bill, labelled by some as the "Internet Censorship Bill", is being discussed by the parliamentary portfolio committee on communications today. The Democratic Alliance (DA) has come out strongly against the Bill being pushed through the committee saying that in its current form "it gives government wide-sweeping powers to censor content on the Internet".

"[The Bill] is unworkable, unaffordable, vague and contains several unconstitutional provisions," according to DA shadow minister of communications, Phumzile Van Damme.

She made the remarks at a press briefing in Parliament ahead of deliberations on the Bill which is supposed to address the shortcomings of the Films and Publications Act of 1996. The aim is to make changes in order to "provide for technological advances, especially online and social media platforms, in order to protect children from being exposed to disturbing and harmful media content in all platforms". However the Bill and the Film and Publication Board's (FPB's) Draft Online Regulation Policy - published last year - have been widely criticised for effectively censoring free-speech, especially on social media platforms.

Van Damme says the DA is not alone in its concerns and that during public hearings earlier this month, major industry players made submissions to the communications committee opposing many of the Bill's proposed provisions. Opposing players included MultiChoice, eNCA, eTV, Right2Know, Media Monitoring Africa, the SOS Coalition, the South African National Editors Forum, the National Association of Broadcasters, Google and the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).

"The legislation currently being pushed through Parliament is unacceptable. The DA will do everything possible through our engagement in the process of legislation to ensure that the bill does not pass in its current form," says Van Damme.

"It is clear that the FPB, and indeed the minister of communications did not apply their minds sufficiently to the Bill before it was tabled in Parliament. We therefore support and welcome the SABC's call for a Regulatory Impact Assessment, which will provide more clarity on the proportionality of the proposed amendments in relation to the challenges the Bill aims to address. This should happen before the Bill is passed," she adds.

Main issues

Many of the submissions during the public hearings complained about the Bill's vague and broad terminology. One example is the legislation's definition of "digital film" which is so broad that it would include user-generated videos uploaded on social media channels such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

"This means that every single person with a social media account in South Africa would have to register with the FPB as a distributor, and pay the requisite fee for pre-classification. This is quite clearly unworkable," says Van Damme.

The DA says there are also constitutional infringements on citizen's right to privacy and freedom of expression. The party also opposes a stipulation that the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) would not be able to issue or renew any broadcasting licence to a broadcaster who also streams content through the Internet - unless the broadcaster is also registered with the FPB. The DA says this would see the FPB "overstep its mandate and infringe on the powers of a Chapter 9 institution, ICASA".

"The FPB cannot instruct ICASA when it may or may not issue or renew a broadcasting license, a determination that may be made only by ICASA in terms of section 192 of the Constitution, as was pointed out by Multichoice during the public hearings."

Van Damme says that when the Bill is read alongside the FPB's Online Regulation Policy, it becomes clear that there is a strong desire to control the content that South Africans access and distribute online.

"The combination of the Online Regulation Policy and the Films and Publications Amendment Bill provides the Films and Publications Board wide powers that amount to nothing short of censorship."

The draft Online Regulation Policy has already been widely criticised for, amongst other things, forcing all online content to be pre-classified before it is published - effectively censoring free-speech on social media.

"This Bill is a thinly-veiled attempt at Internet censorship, disguised as the protection of children against exposure to pornography, as observed recently in many less-than-democratic jurisdictions," according to Van Damme

She says freedom of the press is a fundamental characteristic of a well-functioning and healthy constitutional democracy.

"The proposals in the Bill prove that the department of communications does not quite comprehend the exact nature of the Internet and online interactions. It also proves that, regardless of their ignorance, the government is trying to censor freedom of speech."

Not all bad

The DA does however say there are two provisions in the Bill that are to be welcomed.

"The DA is pleased that in line with the Constitutional Court's order in De Reuck v Director of Public Prosecutions, the definition of what constitutes child pornography, for the purposes of sexual arousal, has been tightened."

The opposition party is also pleased that the Bill seeks to outlaw revenge porn, saying it has "become a major problem, affecting mostly women, and we welcome the intention to prohibit it".

Van Damme says, however, that save for these two proposed amendments, the rest of the Bill "must be thrown out".

The FPB did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.