How Icasa has failed us

So, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) has decided to reject TopTV’s request for permission to air three “adult” channels on its satellite pay-tv platform. In doing so, the regulator hasn’t only overstepped the mark in terms of the degree to which it should be able to interfere with broadcasters’ content decisions. It’s also couched its decision in emotionally exploitive and flimsy rhetoric.

It shouldn’t be within Icasa’s powers to dictate subscription content in this way.
Even if it is within its mandate, how is it that the free-to-air for years showed precisely the sort of content TopTV wants to offer without so much as a regulatory slap on the wrist?

Unlike, TopTV intended to offer subscribers the option to restrict access via a passcode, making it more difficult for minors to access the adult channels than them simply having to stay up late. How is this any different from pay-tv rival DStv’s parental controls that take their cue from the age restrictions assigned by the Film and Publications Board?

Then there’s the content itself. It’s with good reason TopTV’s suggested adult content tends to get put between inverted commas. The proposed “pornographic” material is the visual equivalent of a Mills & Boon novel. It’s pure titillation, devoid of the hard-core sex that is freely available on the internet.

Even if it was hardcore content that was going to be shown, isn’t one of the benefits of living in a country with one of the most progressive constitutions in the world having the right to make our own decisions, good or bad?

TopTV’s proposed offerings were no more compulsory than shopping in an adult store. It’s abhorrent that Icasa sees fit to treat adults like teenagers who can’t be trusted. The regulator has couched the argument in terms that suggest it’s doing us a favour—protecting us from the perils of porn.

In its reasons document denying TopTV’s application, Icasa begins by justifying its decision by saying “the key point of deliberation revolved around how to balance the right of TopTV in terms of its right to freedom of expression with the right of women to equality and human dignity”.

I know many women will who take offence at the idea that they need to be “protected” from explicit material. Icasa’s arguments paint it as patriarchal, pejorative and patronising. The authority isn’t protecting women’s rights; it’s trampling on all South African citizens’ right to freedom of choice.

Icasa goes on to add that it defines pornography as “sexually explicit material that depicts women’s subordination in such a way as to endorse that subordination”. Pornography found online may often satisfy that definition but I wonder how much of the sort of content TopTV had in mind would?

Despite talking at length about South Africa’s levels of violence against women, Icasa says it “is not saying that there is a direct causal relationship between the consumption of pornography and violent sexual crimes against women. The empirical evidence for this is not conclusive and it is certainly not so that all men who consume pornography will suddenly transform into rapists.”

At least we agree there. Saying pornography leads to rape is like saying drinking leads to alcoholism or watching violent movies leads to bar brawls. Because the young can be impressionable, we try to limit their exposure to violence, their access to alcohol and how much explicit material they see in their formative years. But after a certain age they’re allowed to choose for themselves.

Surely even those who don’t drink or watch violent movies don’t want to see booze and action flicks banned? And do we really want to see sports like boxing pulled from our screens because of their inherent “violence” and the chance we might see a little blood? Who knows what Icasa, astride its moral high horse, is going to target next in the supposed interest of protecting South Africans from themselves.

I have no interest in TopTV’s proposed channels; I don’t even own a television. I do, however, have an enormous interest in preventing Icasa, which is doing pretty darned poorly at the more important regulatory work that actually matters, from thinking it’s acceptable to limit my rights as a free citizen.

On behalf of all South Africans, TopTV is almost duty-bound to fight Icasa all the way to the Constitutional Court.—TechCentral

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