Opinionista Ivo Vegter 8 December 2014

Apartheid’s censors ride again

Part of the war against censorship during the Apartheid era was fought over pop music and pin-up girls. These fights might have looked petty, or even misplaced, but they were important in the struggle for freedom and human rights in South Africa. Now, the ANC wants to apply the old laws about what we may and may not publish to the internet.

The Legendary Editor of Scope Magazine, as Dave Mullany calls himself, was something of a hero when I was a schoolboy. We couldn’t say so, of course, except when we were huddled in the basement over Atari games and large bottles of sugary soft drinks. That’s when, on rare occasions, borrowed or stolen girlie magazines surreptitiously appeared.

In its early years, in the 1960s, Scope was little more than a fairly populist news magazine. This soon changed. By the 1970s, its pin-up girls had made it a veteran of appeals against banning orders. When Mullany became editor, it was pushing the boundaries of what the Apartheid censors would tolerate.

In the 1980s, Scope was a tame version of foreign publications that most of us knew only by reputation. However, the argument that it contained good articles (which it did) was increasingly hard to sustain, and most copies were carefully hidden in closets or under beds.

We loved the anti-establishment nature of the magazine not only for the obvious reasons teenage boys in a repressive society might appreciate fine photography. We loved it because Mullany so often flipped the proverbial bird at the censors.

He dodged and dived past the censors’ rulings. He always found entertaining new ways of making sure prigs and children did not accidentally see a half-exposed breast in the supermarket. In fact, Scope’s circulation came to depend on regular bannings.

Once, he published a scratch-off fig leaf over an exquisitely tasteful reclining nude. She was up there with “the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses,” as Mark Twain called Titian’s 1583 masterwork, Venus of Urbino. It (the Titian, not the Scope centrefold) still hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, where it is described as a paean to marital duty, fidelity and motherhood. Sarcasm lives.

On another occasion he published a set of risqué pictures in an insert of which the pages were glued shut. Genius! You had to take a knife to the magazine to get at the nudes. (I didn’t, of course. A friend told me.)

An entire front page was once devoted to an elaborate plain-text warning as to the magazine’s content. Legally, that put the magazine in the clear.

Scope, in the words of Johannes Froneman, a professor in communication studies who wrote a journal paper on its history, “represented a libertarian protest against what was regarded as an unacceptable repression of freedom of speech. …it contributed to the widespread media protest against the Apartheid regime.”

Its record is far from spotless, but it is “a study of brave, irreverent and ethically dubious journalism, depending on your point of view,” wrote Froneman.

Although Scope stood alone in the matter of prurient pictures, the battle against censorship was fought on a much broader front. That battle had far stronger political overtones in pop music.

The government’s censors, surprisingly, banned very few music albums. They did not have to, since they had the full cooperation of the state broadcaster, the SABC. It had a virtual monopoly on television and radio, and would go so far as to scratch records in its library to prevent airplay of songs that were too raunchy or too critical of Apartheid policies. The entire Beatles catalogue was taken off the air over John Lennon’s supposed blasphemy. Sankomota was marked “avoid” because the group sang in several languages, which sounded too much like race-mixing to the SABC. Stevie Wonder was banned for dedicating an award to Nelson Mandela in 1985.

The reason to remember these struggles is not only because they influenced history, but because they ran parallel to the larger political struggle for freedom and human rights that defined South Africa’s history.

The same censors who banned Chris de Burgh’s Spanish Train and Other Stories also banned The World newspaper on Black Wednesday, 19 October 1977. The same authorities who arrested and tortured Mzwakhe Mbuli for his poetry also censored the Rand Daily Mail. The same government that banned Ray Phiri and Sipho Hotstix Mabuse also arrested, shot, or banned the staff of UDF-aligned community newspapers like Grassroots and Saamstaan.

The same bureaucrats who banned The Rocky Horror Picture Show were the ones who provoked the commercial and alternative media to unite in a “Save the Press” campaign in 1988. After prohibiting reporters from covering what was known as “the unrest situation”, they had published a new regulation requiring all journalists, commentators, photographers and news agencies to be registered – by name and address – with the government. This was a step to far, and how soon history repeats itself.

Scope was eventually done in, not by censorship, but by the political freedom it had fought for.

Sitting on a task team to review Apartheid censorship laws, chief censor Kobus van Rooyen – a long-time nemesis of Mullany’s – had noted that the existing regulations “intruded upon freedom of choice of adults in an unreasonable manner in that it makes bannings widely possible by employing vague terminology”.

In 1996, this task team’s work led to a brand new Film and Publications Act. Scope had lost its focus and was hustled out of the market by brash competition, but its long fight against censorship had been won.

However, as early as 1992, Mullany warned that we might be “in for a shock” about censorship in the new South Africa, since the ANC has “a rich tradition of censorship to draw on”. Like the National Party, it is profoundly conservative in its moral views. Like the National Party, it feels insecure in its power. Like the National Party, it comes under frequent media fire. Like the National Party, it views criticism as disloyal, and frequently responds with irritation and anger.

Like the National Party, it has proposed broad new censorship regulations, which it is quietly trying to get past the public. According to a report in the Mail & Guardian, the government has distributed a draft classification policy for online content which makes all the mistakes Van Rooyen warned against. It is dangerously vague, stupidly broad, makes bannings widely possible, and unreasonably infringes on the freedom of adults.

The government intends to require everyone who publishes “digital content” to register with the Film and Publication Board (FPB), which is the successor to the Apartheid-era censor. They will be required to pay a fee of up to R750,000 for the privilege of being censored. Despite paying this fee, they will have to do the actual classification themselves. Then they have to display the FPB logo with ratings and warnings “on the landing page of the website… at the point of sale and during the streaming of the digital content.”

Somehow, the policy will be able to distinguish between what is self-generated content and what is not. If your friend films you riding a bicycle, and posts the video online, is that self-generated, or other-generated? If the latter, your friend is going to want to buy himself a digital content publishing permission slip from the government, and tell Facebook or YouTube to publish an FPB logo on their landing page.

If it is self-generated you’re not required to classify it in advance, but if it is disturbing or harmful to children you can be ordered to remove it or submit if for classification. That also goes for material hosted on global video hosting sites. And they, or you, will be billed for this action and be subjected to legal action for non-compliance.

This law is so ludicrously broad that it is surprising it made it past either technical committees or lawyers. The volume of content produced online is vast. The notion of pre-classifying all published content belongs to a bygone era, both technically and politically.

It will impose substantial costs on most online publishers. Besides paying for PFB registration, they will have to employ staff to get trained as classifiers, and pay those staff.

And what will all this expense buy us? Nothing.

If any law is unenforceable and widely ignored, it reduces respect for all law. It happened with the Apartheid government’s censors, who were routinely undermined and ridiculed for their decisions. It will happen with the ANC’s censors. The South African government will be a laughing stock. It simply will not work.

Worse, even if it does, all this vast bureaucracy and cost won’t make a difference.

Those who want to publish material unsuitable for children will. Simple. Those who want to watch it will find it. Equally simple. It isn’t that hard to circumvent censorship laws, and their existence will drive many consumers to go hunting for ways to do so.

Even if someone gets a fully legal FPB classification, whether or not your child can view it depends on your own parental controls. The classification policy will be completely useless for its stated purpose.

Many internet service providers already supply parental control software, which uses collaborative techniques to classify content and websites worldwide. Software to do this is not hard to find, and much of it is free. There is a mine of information on parental controls available online. Still, if a parent does not install or activate it, no amount of classification will help.

When all else fails, they always throw out that old chestnut: but what about child pornography? Well, what of it? It is considerably harder to find than one might expect. You really don’t stumble across it under ordinary circumstances, even if you do go poking about in dubious, dark corners of the internet.

There, you’ll find that Anonymous, a loosely organised hacker collective, has done more to shut down child pornography distributors on the dark web (not to be confused with the deep web) than any government censorship or classification board in recent years. Not even the most unruly anarchists online tolerate the stuff. It can be fought perfectly well with existing technology and law.

Internet filters, censorship laws and classification schemes will do nothing to prevent it, because real perpetrators use encryption, VPNs and anonymising services that cannot easily be penetrated. They use the same tools that political activists, journalists and dissidents use to bypass the surveillance of oppressive regimes.

When you do catch a child pornography producer or distributor – which takes old-fashioned police work – what they’ve done is already illegal. Just jail them, knowing that they’ll get stabbed in prison because nobody likes a kiddie-fiddler. Why would you need more laws with which to prosecute them?

Are you seriously going to charge a child pornographer with failing to register with the government and self-classify his video? That’s like giving a bank robber a speeding ticket.

Those are the only three objectives of the Film and Publications Act: to provide consumer advice to enable adults to make informed choices for themselves and their children; to protect children from disturbing, harmful or adult materials; and to make the use of children in and the exposure of children to pornography punishable.

None of these objectives will be achieved by this new policy. That leaves only three possible conclusions. Either the government is incompetent, or the government wants to collect online toll fees, or it seeks control over published content for political purposes.

The first is disturbing, the second is harmful, and the third is dangerous. Interpret those words however vaguely you like. DM


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