As organisations and individuals who work in the area of Internet policy and human rights, we write to express our grave concern with the Draft Online Regulation Policy recently issued by the Film and Publication Board of South Africa. We perceive that the Board is overstepping its mandate as the statutory body tasked with classifying films and “certain publications”, to push through a draconian, ham-fisted set of regulations to govern online content, that will significantly threaten free expression in South Africa. Although the Board is ostensibly acting to protect users from harmful content, and in particular, to clamp down on the online abuse of children, on closer examination this appears to be no more than a cynical pretext to police what ordinary South Africans can see, hear and say online.
The wording of the regulations, currently in draft form, is so ambiguous that they could in effect apply to any and all forms of online content and any entity that uploads and publishes such content. According to the regulations, all online distributors would need to apply for a license and would be expected to classify content before publication. The Board is overstepping its mandate in an attempt to extend its powers to classify, while at the same time outsourcing the role of classification to distributors, who will be forced simply to comply with the Board’s own rigid classificatory rules.
The very idea of the administrative prior restraint of expression – in this case the FPB insisting that all content is withheld until it is classified – reeks of crude censorship. It is an unjustifiable and excessive limitation on our fundamental right to free expression. We should not have to prove that expression is legitimate before expressing it; the burden of proof must lie with those who are attempting to limit the right.
Perhaps even more worrying is that the Board is giving itself Orwellian powers of enforcement. Distributors that the Board deems non-compliant could have their distribution licenses revoked and be forced to submit all content to the Board for classification. The Board will also be able to send classifiers to the premises of distributors, who would be compelled to hand over any and all content to the classifiers.
What the Board is attempting is reminiscent of an earlier, darker period in South Africa’s history. During apartheid, political dissent was muzzled by a corps of censors who banned films, plays and publications on such moralistic grounds as protecting people’s dignity and upholding public decency and order. Similarly, the FPB refers to vague and subjective notions in its regulations, such as the need to uphold ‘community standards’. It is clear to see how the regulations – in the hands of an increasingly insecure state – would open the door to censorship and abuse by various means.
Lastly, experience of similar censorship regimes shows that the regulations will inevitably be ineffective – they will have a devastating effect where legitimate expression is concerned, while having a negligible effect on combating child abuse content. Child “pornography”, which is usually hidden in the deep recesses of the internet (the so-called Deep Web), is explicitly outlawed and should be dealt with by the criminal justice system. This is not a role for a crusading administrative body.
The Internet is a global asset that belongs to us all! We ask you to heed the voices of the many South Africans and allies from around the world who stand in support of a free and open Internet, by withdrawing this misguided regulation.
Those endorsing this letter are also encouraged to sign the petition on this topic hosted by the Right2Know Campaign, a coalition of activists and progressive organisations that since 2010 has spearheaded the push for freedom of expression and information access in South Africa. In recent years Right2Know has exposed police brutality and the widespread harassment and surveillance of activists and media workers, confronted the notorious Secrecy Bill, pushed back against security sector overreach, and defended the increasingly beleaguered South African media from corporate and government manipulation.
Endorsements of civil society statement in opposition to South African Draft Online Regulation PolicyRead the petition
|7||Global Partners Digital||UK||Jun 23, 2015|
|6||Electronic Frontier Foundation||United States||Jun 11, 2015|
|5||Internet Society Gauteng Chapter||South Africa||Jun 08, 2015|
|4||Access||Global||Jun 08, 2015|
|3||OpenMedia.org||International||Jun 08, 2015|
|2||Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio and Communication||Bangladesh||Jun 08, 2015|
|1||Internet Policy Observatory Pakistan||Pakistan||Jun 07, 2015|
|11||Lynn Mortimer||South Africa||Jun 10, 2015|
|10||Catri van der Merwe||South Africa||Jun 10, 2015|
|9||Elsa duPlessis||Rep of South Africa||Jun 10, 2015|
|8||Eric Nobbs||South Africa||Jun 10, 2015|
|7||Carlos Owners||USA||Jun 10, 2015|
|6||Johann de Beer||South Africa||Jun 10, 2015|
|5||Nic de Jager||South Africa||Jun 10, 2015|
|4||Charles Shephard||South Africa||Jun 10, 2015|
|3||William Drake||Switzerland||Jun 10, 2015|
|2||Charley Lewis||South Africa||Jun 09, 2015|
|1||Audrey Schoeman||South Africa||Jun 08, 2015|