President Kgalema Motlanthe last week refused to sign the Films and Publications Amendment Bill, questioning its constitutionality and returning it ‘untouched' to Parliament. Melissa Moore, head of Law Clinic at Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), welcomed the president's decision.
“We welcome the president's referral of the Films and Publications Amendment Bill back to Parliament for consideration,” Moore told Bizcommunity.com on Friday, 30 January 2009.
“It is clear that the president has applied his mind to the matter and that he has serious concerns about the constitutionality of the bill. It is important that the bill strikes the delicate balance between the protection of the right to freedom of expression on one hand and the protection of children's rights on the other,” Moore said.
The controversial bill, drafted by the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) and initially meant to fight child pornography, has been referred back to Parliament in terms of Section 79(1) of the Constitution.
Both SANEF and Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) welcomed Motlanthe's decision.
MMA director William Bird said: “While we fully support the fight against child pornography, we must admit that the bill had an unfortunate history. The fact that it should still be the DHA that is drafting the legislation is a hangover from apartheid and the old censorship board.”
Media lobby groups and opposition political parties believed that the bill, which centralises absolute power in the hands of the minister to decide what people see, read, hear or do, was a government's ‘hidden agenda' to control the media and restrict the flow of information.
Moore explained: “The bill has the potential of being used as an effective tool for pre-publication censorship, at the whim of the government of the day, and will create a culture of self-censorship, which will seriously infringe upon our hard-won right to freedom of expression.
“In terms of the bill, all material that falls foul of the offending classification will have to be submitted for classification prior to publication. This includes all publication that contains visual presentations, descriptions or representations of the ‘offending material'.
“Contrary to the principle”
“This is contrary to the principle that regulation of material should operate only once a complaint is received, dealt with and found to be valid. People will also have to submit material for classification (ultimately approval) if they have created it for their own consumption, with no intention of distributing it.”
Furthermore, Bird said that the bill - seen together with some pieces of legislation that were drafted - would support an argument that it was an attempt to limit media freedom.”
Relations between the ruling ANC and the independent media remains estranged, uneasy and flimsy, with both parties accusing each other of violating one another's ‘territory'.
In the past, the ANC proposed the creation of a Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT), sort of a state-manipulated platform where journalists, cartoonists and editors will have to be ‘court-martialled' for publishing ‘untruths' and ‘offending material' and poking their noses into politicians' extra-marital affairs.