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Media freedom organisations protest government censorship plan

(FXI/IFEX) - The following is an 8 August 2006 joint statement by FXI, MISA-SA, and the South African National Editors' Forum (Sanef):

Statement by Sanef / FXI/ MISA-SA on media censorship planned by government

South Africa's three main media freedom organisations, Sanef (SA National Editors' Forum), the South African Chapter of MISA (Media Institute of Southern Africa, MISA-SA) and FXI (Freedom of Expression Institute) are deeply shocked by the government's intention to impose direct censorship on the print and broadcast media.

The Film and Publications Act, which regulates films and publications other than the news media by censorship and classification measures which determine the age groups precluded from viewing certain films and which publications should be prohibited or how they should be displayed in stores, is to be amended by the Film and Publications Amendment Bill 2006.

A clause in the Act has exempted the media from its provisions, thus enabling the print and broadcast news media to operate freely and without interference or pre-publication censorship. This exemption dates back for decades - it was even honoured by the Nationalist apartheid government.

But the Home Affairs Ministry has now proposed, without any warning or consultation, that the exemption will be removed in the amending legislation. If this proposal is accepted by Parliament, the effect will be that the print and broadcast media will be subjected to the dictates of the Film and Publications Board. The practical effects will be that the media will be subjected to pre-publication censorship and may be forced to expunge large amounts of their news coverage from their pages or broadcasts and submit to procedures which will prevent papers from being distributed on a daily or weekly basis and result in broadcasters having to delay news broadcasts. The fact that the Act makes provision for exemption matters little, as to impose this requirement of seeking an exemption is tantamount to obliging the media to seek a licence to publish.

It should also be borne in mind that Icasa's [Independent Communications Authority of South Africa] constitutionally guaranteed role is to regulate broadcasting; no other institution is entitled to interfere with its ability to do so, as this would amount to a violation of Icasa's independence. Any attempt to second-guess the regulatory role of Icasa must not be allowed, which will be the case if the Bill goes through.

Sanef, MISA-SA and FXI condemn this action by the government. The media industry is regulated by the Press Ombudsman, Icasa and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, which hold the media accountable for ethical and other breaches of their codes of conduct. As there is no need for the Film and Publications Board to usurp this function, the only reason that can be advanced for the government's move is that it wishes to censor the media.

Sanef, MISA-SA and FXI are also extremely concerned about the re-classification of publications proposed in the Bill, aspects of which we consider to be unconstitutional as they will greatly increase the scope for censorship of content. Also, the Bill extends the scope of material restricted to adult shops in an overbroad manner, and smacks of a "morality police" approach towards regulating publications.

The three organisations point out that the amendment conflicts with the freedom of expression clause [and with the media clauses] in the Constitution. They note that the deadline for public representation is August 10 - far too soon to make adequate representations - and record their intention to send a detailed protest to the Home Affairs parliamentary portfolio committee dealing with the Bill. They will also request an opportunity to make verbal protest and objections before the committee.

Freedom of Expression Institute

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