It was perhaps the bitterest irony on the media landscape within recent memory: on World Press Freedom Day, local media organisations were not busy celebrating this important day, but painstakingly presenting their arguments against the Film and Publications Amendment Bill to the parliamentary committee on home affairs.
The basic argument is that if enacted in its current form, proposed amendments to the Film and Publications Act would compel television stations to submit all their programmes to the Films and Publications Board for pre-screening.
This is not only draconian, but it is impractical and unconstitutional.
First of all, only the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) has a constitutional mandate to regulate broadcasting content.
The argument that has been trotted out before in favour of the proposed amendment to the Act has been that its sole intention is to curb child pornography on our screens.
But Icasa’s code of conduct already provides for this as it forbids broadcasters from broadcasting sexual conduct or nudity involving people under 18 years of age or even those depicted as being under that age.
Further, in terms of the code, explicit violent sexual conduct is forbidden, as is bestiality and degrading sexual conduct.
Under the naughty pretext of stamping out child pornography, key clauses that exempt the news media from getting approval for the publication of certain material have been removed.
The removal of these exemptions flies in the face of the constitution with regard to press freedom and freedom of expression. These exemptions should be reinstated.
Clause 16 of the draft bill would require anyone who intends to distribute programmes, including news bulletins, to first submit these to the board for examination. Plain ridiculous and impractical.
It should be remembered that the proposed amendments were condemned widely when they were first unveiled last year as incompatible with the constitution’s media freedom provisions.
Indeed, the presidency assured media organisations that government had no intention of undermining this important right, yet the bill was unchanged when it was resubmitted for public hearings before the parliamentary home affairs committee.
Committee chairman Patrick Chauke has said it unequivocally that the media’s discussions with the executive branch of government are not necessarily binding on parliament, which must make up its own mind on the desirability of the amendments. It is all well and good that Chauke is asserting the independence of the committee.
Chauke has argued that their intentions will not impinge negatively on press freedom, but the intention is to prevent, specifically, the publication of pictures depicting the rape of children, as happened in a Cape Town-based tabloid recently.
This sounds noble enough.
But it would seem that Chauke and his crew will eventually back down on the advice of the state’s constitutional lawyers. Further, the bill’s clauses that seem to violate freedom of expression are likely to be declared invalid by the Constitutional Court, should this battle reach that court.
No matter how you look at it, the long and short of this is that precious time and energy have been expended unnecessarily.
And so, now an impression, justifiably so, has been created that government is trying to sneak censorship in through the back door.
This unfortunate impression could have been avoided had government consulted media organizations on measures to snuff out crimes such as child pornography before the draft amendments were even written.
The way to prevent the publication of such abusive material would be to legislate specifically against it, then come down hard on those who deliberately contravene the law.
Prepublication censorship is a classic example of undoing the constitutional guarantees of press freedom and freedom of expression. The whole thing smacks of apartheid era censorship and the abuse of media freedoms.
Fred Khumalo is a Sunday Times columnist and award-winning novelist