The South Africa Film & Publication Board last week released a draft policy which outlines its recently mooted plans to regulate online publications.
The full document – available here – claims responsibility for online publishing as the prerogative of the FPB, which typically classifies movies, due to “media convergence” which has “fundamentally transformed the way media content is distributed and consumed”. It applies to “online distributors of digital films, games, and certain publications, whether locally or internationally”.
Online publications covered by the rules will be obliged to pay a fee to the FPB, which will then vet material published: “Where it is convenient and practical to do so, the Board may dispatch classifiers to the distributors’ premises for the purposes of classifying digital content.”
That seems to apply to anyone who publishes videogame source code, a YouTube video (YouTube is specifically mentioned in the regulations) or a blog.
Publishers will also be able to self-classify their work under certain terms. User generated content will also be governed by the rules, with publishers liable for offensive or illegal material uploaded by readers/users.
One major problem – besides criminalising YouTube – is that “certain publications” aren’t actually defined in the regulations, so they could apply to any news or website – so while it may be that the regulations are aimed at bringing streaming TV services inline with traditional broadcast TV, the wording could include any blog, news site or Facebook page run out of South Africa.
The proposals have already drawn the ire of campaigning group Right2Know, which has put out a statement damning the “vague language and open-ended statements, would [would] leave authorities with far too much room to infringe on the public’s right to freely receive and impart information as enshrined in chapter two of the Constitution.”
The speed and accessibility of internet publishing is vital for increasing the diversity of voices with access to media in the country, R2K argues, on top of which the regulations are completely impracticable.
“The FPB’s plan to police the internet is totally impracticable. New content is posted online via various platforms every second, which the FPB cannot practically prevent. It is likely that the majority of online users will not apply to the FPB for pre-classification of content, nor pay the subscription fee prior to publication, but under these regulations online users stand to be criminalised for doing something as simple as posting content online.”
And finally, according to R2K, the FPB has no authority to issue legislation like this, and is only mandated to produce guidelines.
“Prescreening” of material published in South Africa has already been judged unconstitutional in a 2012 judgement relating to Jacob Zuma’s attempt to have images of The Spear – a painting which portrayed him naked from the waist down – removed from websites.
The hashtag #handsoffourinternet has already appeared. The draft regulations have been submitted to the department of communications. Members of the public have until 2nd June to voice their opinion on the draft, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
At the same time, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), South African National Editors Forum and the Press Council are all working on a voluntary code of conduct for online publishers. According to a statement by the IAB, the FPB has so far failed to respond to requests for a meeting to discuss its plans.