Opinionista Faith Muthambi 31 January 2016

Regulating offensive comments online, defeating the scourge of racism

The internet presents new and complex challenges of content classification and as policy makers we need to respond appropriately to ensure that this medium is effectively regulated, in the same way that radio, television and print media are compelled to abide by certain rules.

The eruption of racism at the beginning of this year serves as a great reminder of the power of the internet and social media, and just how destructive that power can be in the wrong hands. It is the recognition of the maliciousness and vitriol found in many online platforms that several newspapers, locally and globally, have decided to close online comments to readers.

As the custodian department for communication platforms in the country, our conviction has become stronger that we have done the correct thing by tabling an amendment to the Films & Publications Act of 1996 which, among other things, will compel all online content distributors, to ensure that their content is not offensive or in violation of the country’s laws.

Cabinet approved these proposed amendments for tabling in Parliament in November last year. These are set to come up before Parliament in February and March for discussion. What we seek to achieve with these amendments is the extension of the functions of the Film and Publications Board (FPB) of monitoring compliance with the Films and Publications Act to include online distributors in respect of the requirements to comply with the Act.

The regulation of the online environment is not a challenge that is unique to South Africa. Policy makers globally are grappling with how to regulate online content to ensure that users don’t compromise national security, facilitate illegal activities or cause indignity to others through the distribution of hate speech or offensive materials, while balancing freedom of expression. Indeed, communications ministers in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have met on several occasions, including in Namibia and Lesotho last year, to discuss and share ideas on the best possible approach to regulate the internet without stifling the immense opportunities that it provides. As SADC colleagues, we are committed to promoting a multi-stakeholder approach between regulators, Internet Service Providers, content generators, academia, operators and consumers when it comes to online content classification and the importance of digital media literacy programmes. We are all concerned that we need to produce effective guidelines on digital content classification and very pro-active effective and efficient compliance monitoring tools.

These are issues that are on the public discourse in both the developing and developed countries. The internet presents new and complex challenges of content classification and as policy makers we need to respond appropriately to ensure that this medium is effectively regulated, in the same way that radio, television and print media are compelled to abide by certain rules. Importantly, this proposed amendment would also clarify how people should go about to register complaints they may have about online content. Currently people are sending their online content complaints to the SA Human Rights Council when, in fact, they should be directed to the FPB. Fortunately, the SAHRC has been forwarding them to the FPB, which will now capacitate itself to capably deal with this new additional responsibility. The Department of Communications has prioritised this work and in due course we will be appointing a person who will specifically be looking into these matters and those of digital media literacy issues. We are doing this to ensure that South Africans have sound guidelines that are suitable to the dynamic nature of the Internet, and also appropriate recourse when faced with undesirable content.

Added to this, and in line with our focus on the implementation of the National Development Plan, we have also been working hard with the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development in ensuring that we implement Chapter 15 of the NDP, which focuses on transforming society and uniting the country. On this programme we have been working with our communications and broadcasting institutions and partners to look at how we can unite South Africans and promoting social cohesion; increase awareness of the Constitutional and exercise of human rights by educating South Africans about their rights and responsibilities.

The Convention on Nation Building, Social Cohesion and Reconciliation, which starts today and is hosted by the Department of Arts & Culture and other government stakeholders, could not have come at a better time. We may have been jolted, unpleasantly so, by some online commentators spewing racist rhetoric, but we clearly need to marshal our resources and efforts into defeating the scourge of racism. DM

Faith Muthambi is Minister of Communications.

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