Censorship or Classification?

Until democracy, the control of what South Africans watched or read was regulated through censorship. Since then, the environment is regulated through classification. And the difference? Some would argue that there is none, and that any difference constitutes window-dressing only.
Others assert the need for some public body to give meaning to our society’s moral fibre. That may be true, but the Film & Publication Board, particularly its Classification Committees, need to settle on a sense of consistency to calm a swelling of discontent among media owners.

Film distributors, exhibitors and magazine publishers are among those affected by classification. The mechanism uses a system of age restrictions and advisories to indicate the suitability or otherwise of a film or publication. The committees and their umbrella body, the board, are the initial arbiters of the process. If one is unhappy, one can use the appeal process and take an adverse finding to the more rigorous Review Board.

Why more rigorous? Well, it is precisely the lack of rigour at committee level that has forced the Review Board to get its hands dirty and begin to spell out the way in which proper operation of the law should be implemented. The reason has become self evident over the last few months: a lack of consistency, and it seems, training, has led to some poor decisions being handed down to film distributors and publishers.

The system works like this. Films, DVDs and the like need to be pre-approved. Other publications are only adjudicated if there is a complaint. An array of age restrictions and the well known SLVN (sex, language, nudity, vilolence) advisories inform the public of the classification.

Under censorship, there were committees and appeal boards too, but the premise was different. There “control” or “censorship” were the keys. Look at the film, impose a restriction or don’t, and decide whether or not to cut or ban. Nowadays it’s different. Start with a clean slate, consider the film or publication, bear in mind the constitution, assess whether one of any age can view the item in question, and if not, decide why and how best to deal with it. The test is one of tolerance and not taste and is an objective one. Sounds pretty simple—but is it?

In January 2005 a complaint was lodged against material in ,i>Cosmopolitan, FHM and GQ. The complaint was wide ranging, likening FHM to “soft porn such (as) Playboy“and accusing Cosmo of a “socially irresponsible and completely inappropriate” publication of a story about prostitution. A Classification Committee found that all three publications should be restricted to being sold to persons only over the age of 18 and displayed in a sealed wrapper. Lawyers for all three magazines were told to appeal the decisions and rightly so. The effect of this classification would be to place them all into the realm of “adult” content, which would hamper financial viability and circulation.

On appeal, all the lawyers agreed. The findings were wrong. Review Board chair, Kabi Govender, himself a lawyer of some repute, agreed and got to the nub. Classification, he ruled, was about judging in context, providing proper reasons, taking into account the relevant legislation, and protecting the public from content only where necessary.

That said and done, the terrain for classification set out in this decision (and some others historically) have set the parameters for classification. Now the committees need to take heed, learn the ropes and implement decisions which will set minds at rest. If public morality is to be determined by organs of State, let them make good, proper, justifiable and appropriate decisions.

Mark Rosin is a partner at Rosin Wright Rosengarten, a firm specialising in entertainment and media law based in Johannesburg. Visit the firm’s website at www.rwr.co.za.

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