By Michael Swain, Executive Director of FOR SA

The Films and Publications Amendment Bill (commonly referred to as “the Internet Censorship Bill”) adopted in the National Assembly on 6 March 2018, is a mixed bag.  On the positive side, the Bill contains provisions allowing the Film & Publication Board (FPB) to block online content containing violent porn from being available in South Africa.  It also forces porn distributors to register with the FPB, after which they must prove that a minor cannot gain access to this material, which in turn must be classified as X-rated or distributors will be criminally prosecuted.  On the negative side, it significantly broadens the categories of porn which can be legally distributed to and viewed by adults, as well as making legal access to them much easier.

To give some background, the XX category of banned materials up to now applies to sexually explicit material which violates human dignity, or degrades, or incites harm against a human being.  However, this Bill proposes to replace these three prohibitions with a single XX definition, outlawing only sexually explicit conduct which is accompanied by explicit violence.  This opens the door to many depictions of degrading and dehumanising sexual conduct which hitherto are banned.  The problem in any event is that even exposure to non-violent sexual material, does trigger violent sexual behaviour in some users and thus endangers the vulnerable – especially women and children.

Another problem area is that the Bill opens up the online space to forms of pornography which could formerly only be viewed in certain physical premises like Adult World.  This is concerning, since South Africa is already one of the world’s top consumers of pornographic material.  It ranks #1 for access to porn via a smartphone, #2 for the length of time of a single visit to a porn site and #5 in the world in terms of sexual crime statistics.  Yet instead of making porn more restricted – which scientific research studies show to be destructive to individuals, the family unit and society as a whole – this Bill takes a “liberal” approach and opens the doors still further.  Specifically, the serious concerns raised by advocacy groups like Cause for Justice were ignored and omitted in the final draft of the Bill. (For more information in this regard see www.causeforjustice.org).

The Bill will now come before the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) for approval, before it can be sent to the President to be signed into law.

The bizarre double standard of FPB legislation

It is bizarre and extraordinary that, while this Bill literally opens the floodgates to vile and destructive pornographic material, provisions in existing FPB legislation are being used to inhibit the church and other religious organisations from freely distributing their materials and sermon messages to the public (including their own congregants).

These provisions oblige any “distributor” or “exhibitor” of video materials to register with the FPB and to submit their film recordings for classification before they are allowed to distribute or exhibit them, whether in disc format or online.  These provisions have already been used to harass certain churches who use video extensively to extend the reach of their message and their ministry.

These churches have argued that they should be exempted from registration and/or classification, because they are not distributing this video content for commercial gain but rather for educational and other bona fide religious purposes.  However, to date the FPB has refused this argument, so even if a church wants to give away a free dvd of the message their congregants have literally just listened to in person in the church auditorium, they are precluded from doing so until it has been exempted from the Act’s operation or received a classification for the dvd from the FPB.

Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) has met, and will continue to meet, with the FPB and various concerned parties with a view to seeking a general exemption for religious organisations from these onerous and costly registration and vetting requirements.  We will also be developing a “pro-forma” submission and alerting our constituency to put pressure on this process so that the views of the religious community are given proper consideration.

Michael was raised in England, graduating from the University of Bristol with an honours degree in Law before immigrating to South Africa in 1983. He has been a successful businessman as well as having spent over 25 years in ministry in South Africa, Europe and the USA. He serves as the Executive Director of Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA).

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