DA lays out objections to ‘Internet Censorship Bill’
The Democratric Alliance (DA) will raise its objections to a “number of problematic clauses” in the Films and Publications Amendment Bill which will be presented to Parliament's Portfolio Committee on Communications on Tuesday.
On Monday‚ minister of communications Faith Muthambi‚ said the bill - introduced to the National Assembly in November last year – “does not create a new regulatory regime‚ but seeks to strengthen the law by closing the gaps identified in the Films and Publications Act in relation to online content regulation”.
The DA’s Phumzile van Damme‚ however‚ said that “if this bill is pushed through Parliament without due consideration‚ it will chill free speech enshrined in the Bill of Rights”.
She said the legislation – which she dubbed the “Internet Censorship Bill” - gives the Films and Publications Board (FPB) “wide-sweeping powers to censor the Internet” and seeks to extend its “reach…to include online content and establish a ‘Penalty Committee’ with powers to impose heavy fines and criminal prosecution of those deemed to have contravened its provisions”.
Most problematic for the DA‚ Van Damme said‚ was that “the FPB‚ and in turn‚ the minister of communications…will have powers to impose fines and refer any ;offenders’ to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) for prosecution for the content of their posts on Facebook‚ Twitter and any other social media sites deemed to have fallen foul of the provision”.
“Such wide-ranging powers of censorship over all social media posts need to be carefully considered and worded in such a way that it would prevent it being abused by the government to censor‚ and curb free speech‚” said Van Damme.
“A clear distinction must be made between free speech and hate speech as defined in the Constitution.”
Muthambi’s statement on Monday‚ however‚ seemed to stress that the legislation was in response to the “an emergence and avalanche of explicitly sexual and violent content brought in by the new media push and cyberspace that has no physical borders”.
The bill was also needed because of a “failure of self-regulation in certain sectors of the industry” as well as an acknowledgement that “state regulation has its limitations within the industry”.
“Therefore‚ a much co-ordinated co-regulation model that provides for the involvement of industry and the government is required. Such a model will need to have clearly defined roles‚ responsibilities and accountability levels‚" said Muthambi.
Muthambi stressed that her department “is not seeking to control the internet‚ but safeguard minors and vulnerable persons in the best way possible”.
“Other problematic clauses” identified by the DA included: - That the minister has the power to appoint the Penalty Committee in consultation with Cabinet – “a body with such powers should be appointed in consultation with Parliament‚ and not the minister and cabinet to prevent a situation where the Penalty Committee becomes a political hit-squad”‚ said Van Damme; - The CEO of the FPB will have “undue influence in deciding the sanctions of the Penalty Committee‚ as well as decisions for criminal prosecution”‚ when it “should remain entirely independent”; and
Van Damme said she welcomed that the amendment “seeks to outlaw revenge porn‚ by prohibiting the publication through any electronic medium including the internet and social networking sites‚ private sexual photographs or films if the publication is without consent of the subject‚ or intended to distress”.
“Revenge porn has become a major problem in the age of the internet‚ affecting mostly women‚ and it is imperative that it is legislated against. However‚ the amendment bill in its current form leaves large scope for abuse which parliament cannot allow‚” she added.