Raymond Joseph: South Africa in danger of losing hard-earned freedoms

Back in the days when the ruling National Party and their thought police ruled South Africa with an iron fist, one of the most powerful bodies tasked with enforcing Apartheid’s staunch Calvinistic values was the Film and Publications Board (FPB). A group of conservative, mainly Afrikaans men and women, it was their job to scrutinise and censor publications: books, movies and music.

Anything depicting even a hint of a mixing of races resulted in either an outright ban or, in the case of movies, ordered to make jarring cuts that often edited out key parts of the story. Suggestions of sex – between people of different colours – was verboten. Anything of a perceived political nature that didn’t fit in with ruling party’s narrow views was instantly banned.

The power to ban publications lay with the minister of the interior under the Publications and Entertainments Act of 1963. An entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica explains its purpose: “Under the act a publication could be banned if it was found to be ‘undesirable’ for any of many reasons, including obscenity, moral harmfulness, blasphemy, causing harm to relations between sections of the population, or being prejudicial to the safety, general.”

The result was that literally thousands of books, newspapers and other publications and movies were banned in South Africa – and possession of them was a criminal offence.

It led to some truly bizarre rulings, like the banning of Anna Sewell’s classic book Black Beauty because the censors, who clearly didn’t bother to read it, thought it was about a black woman.

I still have clear memories of returning from visits to multiracial Swaziland with banned publications hidden under carpets, slipped behind the dashboard or under spare wheels. That was how I got hold of a copy of murdered Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko’s I Write What Like and exiled South African editor Donald Woods’ Cry Freedom, about the life and death of Biko.

I still remember clearly how my heart skipped a beat when border guards checking through my car got uncomfortably close to uncovering my contraband literature. It was a huge risk because, had it been discovered, it would have meant prosecution and a criminal record for possession of banned literature.

Even having a copy of Playboy was a criminal offence and more than one South African found himself with a criminal record after a copy of the magazine was found stashed in his luggage on his return to South Africa from an overseas trip.

But when South Africa’s new, post-Apartheid constitution came into effect in 1996, it brought new freedoms for South Africans: books and movies banned by the Apartheid government were unbanned. Sex also came out into the open and, for those so inclined, pornography became freely available in the ubiquitous sex shops that opened their doors on high streets and side streets all over the country.

Then, the world wide web was in its infancy in South Africa, available only to the academics and privileged few who could afford it. But now, almost two decades later in a move that has raised fears of a new wave of censorship, the South African government last month approved a bill that has been widely criticised for seeking to curb internet freedoms. Informed by a draft policy drawn up by the FPB it seeks to amend the Film and Publications Act of 1996 – which had itself, replaced the Apartheid-era version of the Act – by adapting it for 21st century technological advances.

The amendments “provide for technological advances, especially online and social-media platforms, in order to protect children from being exposed to disturbing and harmful media content in all platforms (physical and online)”, according to a recent cabinet statement.

“The bill strengthens the duties imposed on mobile networks and internet service providers to protect the public and children during usage of their services,” it said, adding that the regulatory authority would not “issue licences or renewals without confirmation from the Film and Publication Board of full compliance with its legislation.”

The draft policy covers several areas including preventing children from viewing pornography online, hate speech and racist content.

But it also led to fear that it could be used to impose pre-publication censorship. These fears were allayed to some extent when a compromise was reached exempting content published by media registered with the Press Council of South Africa, which recently revised its press code to include regulation of online content exempted from the bill. But this is cold comfort for media who are not members, leaving them and bloggers, social media commentators and ordinary citizens vulnerable.

As it now stands anyone uploading content to the internet or posting content to social media would need to register with the FPB and submit their content before publishing anything. The proposed changes to the law would severely limit South Africa’s hard-earned, constitutional right to free speech, warn critics, who believe it would not pass constitutional muster.

This is reinforced by a legal opinion prepared for the Right to Know Campaign (R2K), which believes that the proposed bill is unconstitutional in several areas and also “unjustifiably limits the right to freedom of expression”. Opponents have made it clear that if  it passes into law they will take it to the Constitutional Court.

There is no doubt that the battle lines have been drawn. Already 32,000 people opposing the bill have signed an Avaaz petition, while another 9,000 people have signed an R2K petition.

But the real issue is whether the FPB would be able to enforce it and whether trying to police the internet is just as bizarre as their predecessor’s banning of Black Beauty.

This column was posted on 10 Septemeber 2015 at indexoncensorship.org