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Bloggers battle Film Bill

jude's picture

THE kak surrounding the Film and Publications (FPB) Amendment Bill will hit the fan again when public hearings are held on 2 and 3 May (ironically International Press Freedom Day). Just when some privileged South Africans learn to exploit their media freedom on the blogosphere, this facile regulation proposes ideas that could seriously curb freedom of expression and online media entrepreneurship.

Much has been written about the constitutionality and impracticability of the bill, its potential for prior censorship and its intent to protect South Africa’s children from accessing smut on our streets, on mobiles and the internet. Media debate on the FPB bill has centered on the removal of historic provisions exempting registered print and broadcast news media from the law in favor of self-regulation through the Press Ombudsman and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission.

Less has been noted about the FPB bill’s implications for online media and the blogosphere.

While the bill has laudable goals to protect children from harmful content mainly of a sexual nature, in their haste, parliamentarians have once again taken a mallet to a fly.

Taken to its extreme, under section 16(1) of the bill, anyone can ask the FPB to classify a publication which is distributed in the Republic to be classified under categories of violence, sex, nudity, racism and prejudice. The bill demands that creators and publishers submit materials if they contain representations or descriptions of sexual conduct, propaganda for war, incitement to imminent violence or the advocacy of hatred based on any identifiable group characteristic.

Consider how the provisions could apply to blogs like the racy chumpstyle (PG16), flash games like Taxi Wars (PG16) and even president Mbeki’s weekly missives on issues such as crime and racism . If the regulation does not exempt forms of online social communication and pleasure – blogs, forums, online chats, and online MUD games (among others) would have to be regulated and classified. Those that do not conform to public models of good taste or that fall foul of the constitution may be classified or criminalised.

Under the bill’s expanded ambit to regulate the “creation, production, possession and broadcasting” of content all user generated content on wired and wireless content providers (even those not hosted in South African domains) could be affected. This would extend liability for comments posted on a blog to the blog creator, the blog host and the commentee (who is often anonymous). It is unlikely that many blogs that are written anonymously, could remain so for much longer if they had to be classified.
In the meantime, new media upstarts like Zoopy and myvideo that cash in on user generated content wave may have to register as distributors or exhibitors of content or suffer of section 24A of the law. This entails an unspecified fine or six months in one of the state’s finest resorts – like Pollsmoor. South African blog aggregator, Amatomu could possibly be held liable for content and comment on blogs linked to and through it.

These considerations were (and probably still are) far from the minds of the drafters when they put the bill together. Their heavy handedness and ineptitude has been gob-smacking. The FPB admits that it failed to consult broadly. It is also possible that some in the home affairs portfolio committee are using this opportunity to embark on a conservative crusade to clean up the media. Anyone who doesn’t believe me should take a look at the Parliamentary Monitoring Group’s excellent minutes of a committee meeting where MPs talk about “tightening the screws” on the press.

There is no doubt that social legislation has to keep up with technology. But this implies that the drafters of laws should understand those technologies and their future information, communication and business applications, lest they do untold damage through their own myopia. The protection of our children is a task of communities and families. We need to teach our kids critical media literacy in schools and demand that parents become more tech savvy to regulate what media their kids consume and produce.

Let’s hope that sanity prevails – if not, at least our constitution.

How could the FPB Amendment Bill affect the blogosphere. Have your say...