Legal View

Media-muzzling law postponed

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The tabling of a Bill in Parliament to amend the Films and Publications Act in a way that could muzzle the media, as well as Internet and wireless application service providers, has been postponed to next year, Cabinet decided yesterday.

A statement issued after yesterday`s meeting of president Thabo Mbeki`s executive decided "to extend the period for the finalisation of the Films and Publications Bill to the next session of Parliament in 2007".

Government communications chief Themba Maseko said: "This extension will give stakeholders the opportunity to discuss all the policy issues that have arisen which have created the perception that government intended to muzzle the media. This decision demonstrates our commitment to the principle of media freedom as enshrined in our constitution."

The decision followed a meeting on Tuesday where Cabinet ministers and media organisations agreed to hold more talks on the matter.

Huge impact

Michael Silber of specialist ICT law firm Michalsons Attorneys said the Bill had a huge potential impact on ISPs and WASPs. He said it required every computer game, video clip or film sound track to be classified before distribution. In addition, a definitional ambiguity in the current law makes every still image in electronic form and viewable on a screen (as apposed to in a paper format) both a film and a publication.

"Even news needs to be classified," Silber said. "As a film, everything needs to be classified before distribution. The schedule of [application] fees does not currently have a category for video streaming via Internet or images via Internet - but has a range of around R1 347.50 for computer games, R1 650 per film in public entertainment format and R1 100 per film in home entertainment format (plus R16.50 per minute over 90 minutes)," he added. "This does not even get into the issue of trying to classify blogs, or news prior to publication on the Internet."

The South African National Editors Forum, the SA Chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa and the Freedom of Expression Institute welcomed the "Cabinet`s reiteration of its commitment to the principle of media freedom as enshrined in the Constitution" in a joint statement.

No notice

They said the media industry had protested at Tuesday`s meeting that it had received no notice of the intention to introduce the legislation.

"The media`s major complaint was that the amendment removes the exemption from the classification, or censorship, and other provisions of the Films and Publications Act which the print and broadcast media had [been exempt from] for more than 40 years. The removal meant that the media would be subject to Film and Publication Board pre-publication censorship."

The statement noted that the media had emphasised to government that, while objecting to the Bill, it fully supported the main objective of the amendments, namely to prevent the spread of child pornography, limit the access of children to pornography, and put a stop to the exploitation of children and child abuse.

The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) said there could be no middle ground on the issue. "Why should the media quote compromise unquote with government when government`s position is unconstitutional?" said Dene Smuts, the DA`s spokesperson on communications. "Government is on the retreat and must be forced right back."

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