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Legislation undermines free expression

Media professionals in South Africa say a possible new bill is in reality a form of censorship, obstructing journalists from doing their jobs, reports the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA). Meanwhile, the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) is concerned about another bill already signed into law that has introduced a system of pre-publication censorship.

The proposed Protection of Harassment Bill's definition is broad enough to curtail media coverage, says MISA, preventing journalists from doing in-depth investigations. The bill is aimed at protecting victims of stalking not covered by the Domestic Violence Act, reports MISA. But the South African Editors' Forum (SANEF) told MISA that the bill needs to cite "freedom of the media as a right to be specifically respected." Otherwise, due to the lack of understanding of how the media works, journalists could be slapped with criminal charges and damage claims, reports MISA.

In addition, FXI is alarmed by the signing into law of the Films and Publications Amendment Act 3 of 2009. The Amendment Act forces any publisher (under threat of a five-year prison sentence or a fine, or both) who is not a legitimate newspaper, "who wishes to distribute, broadcast or exhibit any film or game, to submit such a publication, film or game to the Films and Publications Board (FPB) for approval prior to publication, distribution, broadcast or exhibition."

This Amendment Act curtails freedom of expression, says FXI. The Films and Publications Board may ban any material that it thinks contains "child pornography, propaganda for war, incitement of imminent violence, the advocacy of hatred based on any identifiable group characteristic and that constitutes incitement to cause harm; explicit sexual conduct which violates disrespect for the right to human dignity of any person," among many other stipulations.

FXI comments that it is not the right of a branch of the state to dictate to society what it is permitted to read, see, hear or do. This legal requirement is controlling the free flow of information.

Furthermore, the Amendment Act requires that anyone who knows of, suspects, or has reason to suspect that an offence has been or is being committed under the provisions of the Act must hand over all details to the police, otherwise the individual will be guilty of an offence, reports FXI.

This clause undermines freedom of the press as journalists will be strong-armed by the law into revealing their sources of information related to the commission of an offence, severely damaging the media's ability to gather news, says FXI.

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