Rod Nordland

The New York Times: July 3, 2012

An underground screening in Beirut on Monday of “Mamnou3!,” a “mockumentary” set in a recreated censorship bureau. [Bryan Denton for The New York Times]

When government censors in Lebanon reviewed a new film, “Beirut Hotel,” there was one scene that particularly caught their attention — a reference to a USB memory stick with documents on it about the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

The censors tipped off their colleagues in another department of the General Directorate of General Security, the country’s internal intelligence agency, which then demanded that the film’s producer turn over the USB stick.

Of course, the film was fictional, and the stick nonexistent. And although the film contained risqué sex scenes compared with other Lebanese films, the censors banned it instead on grounds of national security for having simply mentioned the Hariri assassination — the defining event in recent Lebanese history.

The filmmaker, Danielle Arbid, said she moved to France in disgust. “Beirut Hotel,” released late last year, was her third feature film in a row to be banned in Lebanon. She joins a parade of artists to leave the country, following businesses and investors whose frustration with Beirut was more practical, and probably even more consequential.

With a new government dominated by allies of Hezbollah, long a proxy of Syria, censorship has been on the rise. Four new films have been banned this year — a record for the Media and Theater Department, as the censorship bureau is formally called.

Intellectually and artistically, Beirut has long been freer than other places in the Middle East; some now fear that is under threat as never before. With the rise of the Shiite Islamists of Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims — traditionally moderate — have been increasingly challenged by extremists, from Salafi mullahs in Sidon to Al Qaeda in the northern city of Tripoli. All of them have been pushing back against secular license.

“Why freer? Why an -er on that word?” asked Ayman Mhanna, executive director of the Samir Kassir Foundation, a group dedicated to freedom of expression, and named in honor of a journalist and critic of Syria who was assassinated after Mr. Hariri. Most of the rest of the region has little or no bragging rights when it comes to freedom of expression.

Christian groups have also been joining the call for censorship. “The majority of complaints are initiated by the churches,” Mr. Mhanna said. It is perhaps the only thing religious parties on all sides seem to agree about. “When it comes to censorship, they’re all perfectly O.K. with that.”

After its civil war ended in 1990, Lebanon never did regain its role as the economic powerhouse of the Middle East, and as a natural bridge between East and West. That did not help matters, either — prosperity has always encouraged greater freedom. Then Lebanon’s economic collapse last year was set off by the new government’s refusal to cooperate with the United Nations special tribunal investigating the role of Syria and Hezbollah in Mr. Hariri’s assassination, after it indicted Hezbollah officials. The uprising in Syria next door worsened investor confidence even further.

For many businesses and even cultural institutions, places like Doha, Qatar, and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates just seemed like a better bet, even though censorship is rife and political freedoms virtually nonexistent. Western museums and universities opened branches in the Persian Gulf states, not in the city once called the Paris of the Arab world.

In Beirut, the censors have banned “The Da Vinci Code” as anti-Christian and the TV series “The West Wing” as anti-Arab. The General Security directorate has broad powers in other areas, too, refusing permission, for instance, for the director Francis Ford Coppola to land his private jet in Beirut in 2009 because the engine included parts made in Israel; he had to land in Damascus instead, and travel overland.

After the civil war, says Sarkis Naoum, a columnist for the newspaper An-Nahar, “at first business did come back, but we did not regain our old position. In reality, the civil war did not end, just the military actions of the civil war ended.”

Sectarian squabbling between ministries adversely affected Lebanon in ways important to both the business and cultural communities. Internet speed is among the slowest in the world, 172nd among countries, according to “It takes me two days to download a short movie,” said Nadim Lahoud, a film producer. Cellphones and land line telephones are equally bad, and expensive.

“Nothing works in this country except the censorship bureau,” Ms. Arbid said by telephone.

Mr. Mhanna said infrastructure problems like that were cultural concerns as well, particularly Internet speed — which he feels the government keeps slow out of a misguided view by censors that it makes it easier to keep tabs on troublemakers. “Slow Internet service is one of the fundamental impediments to freedom of expression,” he said.

Mr. Lahoud decided to take on the censorship bureau directly, with a weekly dramatic series called “Mamnou3!” — a “mockumentary” set in a re-creation of the ’70s-styled office space of the censorship bureau, full of steel filing cabinets where the only computer is the size of a small refrigerator. (Mamnou means forbidden in Arabic.)

Financed by European Union grant money through the Samir Kassim Foundation, the series had its premiere on Monday — not on television, which would require approval of the bureau that it mocks, but online, promoted by social networking sites.

“We’re guessing they won’t do anything about it,” Mr. Lahoud said, “not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t have the capacity.”

…’autocratic culture’

Pravit Rojanaphruk

The Nation: July 1, 2012


Although it has been banned since April, the co-producer of the film “Shakespeare Must Die”, Manit Sriwanithpoom, continues his campaign to overturn the Film Board’s decision, which was based on fears that the satirical work would be interpreted as a criticism of Thaksin Shinwatra, inflaming social divisions. Manit talked to The Nation on Sunday’s Pravit Rojanaphruk about the road ahead. Excerpts follow.

What do you think is the real reason behind the banning of the film?

I think the [Film Board] members fear that it will affect the image of Thaksin and mock him, but they won’t say it. It’s like when we’re in a state of fear, we tend not to mention the name of the person we are afraid of.

Should a film that risks causing social division be censored? Why or why not?

We must look at the context. Thai society is beyond what any film can or cannot do. The society is already divided. I don’t think the film is capable of making it more divided. Mostly, the rift that is happening today stems from politicians.

In the case of the National Reconciliation Bill, it turned the Parliament into a forum for division and this had nothing to do with the movie.

If they think the movie defames Thaksin, then lets prove it in court by filing a libel charge against me. I am ready and willing to fight it in court.

What does the banning of your film tell us about Thai society?

It reflects the fact that Thai society is still fragile on virtually every issue. So when something similar to the real situation is told it causes uneasiness and overreaction.

It could be a journalist who constructively criticises the monarchy institution, who has fallen into a [legal] net.

Overreaction comes from all sides, be it Pheu Thai or the Democrat Party. This reflects the insecurity of power.

What is your next move?

The National Human Rights Commission will release a statement no later than [mid-July]. We consider the use of power without proper reason to constitute a [rights] violation. It took no less than two to three years to produce the film, and one meeting and a piece of paper to ban it. We shall use the statement by the NHRC to petition the Administrative Court [to revoke the ban].

We must be open-minded but we aren’t, because we don’t have a democratic culture. Today, we only have an autocratic culture. We must open up space for differing opinions, be patient and tolerant. Censorship is a product of the lack of a democratic culture.

[The film] may seem amoral, but only [to those with] a set morality. We must be open to different views and try to understand the reasons why people think differently.

Ray Bradbury on Censorship

Libertarian Neocon: June 6, 2012

Ray Bradbury, who wrote one of my favorite books ever, Fahrenheit 451, just died at the age of 91.  As we mourn his passing, take a look at a piece he wrote after he found out some of his work was being censored back in the 70’s (h/t Cato):

There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people run­ning about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian, Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/ Republican, Mattachine/ Four Square Gospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.

Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by minori­ties, each ripping a page or a paragraph from this book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the libraries closed forever.

“Shut the door, they’re coming through the win­dow, shut the window, they’re coming through the door,” are the words to an old song. They fit my life-style with newly arriving butcher/censors every month. Only six weeks ago, I discovered that, over the years, some cubby-hole editors at Ballantine Books, fearful of contaminating the young, had, bit by bit, censored some 75 separate sections from the novel. Students, reading the novel which, after all, deals with censorship and book-burning in the fu­ture, wrote to tell me of this exquisite irony. Judy-Lynn Del Rey, one of the new Ballantine editors, is having the entire book reset and republished this summer with all the damns and hells back in place.

A final test for old Job II here: I sent a play, Leviathan 99, off to a university theater a month ago. My play is based on the “Moby Dick” mythology, dedi­cated to Melville, and concerns a rocket crew and a blind space captain who venture forth to encounter a Great White Comet and destroy the destroyer. My drama premieres as an opera in Paris this autumn.

But, for now, the university wrote back that they hardly dared do my play—it had no women in it! And the ERA ladies on campus would descend with ball-bats if the drama department even tried!

Grinding my bicuspids into powder, I suggested that would mean, from now on, no more productions of Boys in the Band (no women), or The Women (no men). Or, counting heads, male and female, a good lot of Shakespeare that would never be seen again, especially if you count lines and find that all the good stuff went to the males!

I wrote back maybe they should do my play one week, and The Women the next. They probably thought I was joking, and I’m not sure that I wasn’t.

For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangu­tan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water-conversation­ist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics. The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws. But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights end and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule. If Mor­mons do not like my plays, let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent type-writers. If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmilk teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture. If the Chicano intel­lectuals wish to re-cut my “Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” so it shapes “Zoot,” may the belt unravel and the pants fall.

For, let’s face it, digression is the soul of wit. Take philosophic asides away from Dante, Milton or Ham-let’s father’s ghost and what stays is dry bones. Laur­ence Sterne said it once: Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine, the life, the soul of reading! Take them out and one cold eternal winter would reign in every page. Restore them to the writer—he steps forth like a bridegroom, bids them all-hail, brings in variety and forbids the appetite to fail.

In sum, do not insult me with the beheadings, finger-choppings or the lung-defiations you plan for my works. I need my head to shake or nod, my hand to wave or make into a fist, my lungs to shout or whis­per with. I will not go gently onto a shelf, degutted, to become a non-book.

All you umpires, back to the bleachers. Referees, hit the showers. It’s my game. I pitch, I hit, I catch. I run the bases. At sunset I’ve won or lost. At sunrise, I’m out again, giving it the old try.

And no one can help me. Not even you.

 [Louis Monier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images]


If the TV went a breast too far, then turn it off

Kong Rithdee

Bangkok Post: June 23, 2012


Ray Bradbury was right: Television destroys culture and makes us dumb. Turn on the blow-torch and burn books, because the mass hypnotism prescribed by TV is the status quo of modern consciousness. Regardless of your race or religion, your colour and your god, your sex or age, everyone has the same altar upon which daily worshipping is proffered, prime-time or otherwise. Every house has the same shrine, flickering, rectangular, sucking the hologrammed gods from space.

The problem is addiction, for we can’t take our weary eyes off it. If television has been such a cause of distress, infamy and national hysteria during the whole month – starting with the “black screen” of European football to the abstract-expressionist breast-painting in Thailand’s Got Talent that would shame the entire modernist canon from Pollock to Richter – if TV is so evil, in short, why don’t we just turn it off? Which god or devil compels us to leave it on? We’re all complicit in this idiocy, enslaved by the airwaves, and the only censorship we need comes from us – not from the state – by closing our eyes and turning off the tube.

It’s even more distressing that the breast-painting shock-show has evoked questions we never thought to discuss, from the meaning of art to media ethics, while puritans seize the day to beat the war drum of censorship and the need to preserve Thai values; the Culture Ministry wants to block the YouTube clip of the show because – music please! – it hurts the image of Thailand. Soon the smell of hypocrisy and cheap moralism grows stronger than fresh paint. And just when we thought Workpoint, the show’s producer, was the villain-in-chief, a newspaper upped the ante by tracking down the family of the bare-breasted woman, Duangjai Jansuanoi, in a tabloidesque dispatch that ended with the woman’s mother apologising to the viewers. Apologies to us? What a fatal blow to cap this shameful affair. Yet if we’re too weak to turn off the tube, it’s time to set the record straight. The giddy point that has accompanied the Thailand’s Got Talent uproar over the past week is whether the whole thing was a set-up. The show was supposed to be “real”, with “real” people performing unscripted acts, with the judges (I can’t stand any of them) unprepared for the “real drama” unfolding on stage. The great myth of modern television – the myth that sustains the billion-dollar industry – is that what happens on screen is a direct transport of reality and truth. Such myth is magnified by the proliferation of the most cynical genre called reality TV, from singing contest to human zoo and Whatever Got Talent, and in effect we’re turned into reality junkies addicted to reality porn.

By this I don’t mean porn as in naked flesh. That is simple, even lucid. But I refer to how mainstream TV shows employ the mechanism of porn: an excess of fake reality, of fantasy disguised as actuality, of vulgar sensationalisation, all aiming to stimulate our basest instincts and to boost ratings. This hysteria about topless painting on national television is not an issue of obscenity, as moralists are shrieking about, but of low media literacy among the viewers, which is a bigger problem.

The authorities, in their typical shallowness, confine the debate to the matter of indecency and “inappropriateness” (televised breasts are obscene, televised coup d’etats are not). What they should do instead is broaden the frame of discussion and take the opportunity to push for the cultivation of media literacy, starting by promoting viewers’ immunity against the manipulation of media corporates, against the greedy masquerade and mercenary ploys executed under the banner of “reality” and “talent”. To promote media literacy is to promote critical thinking. It’s to equip the people with necessary resistance against the frightening flux of information, propaganda, advertisements and consumerism. Media literacy also means the end of state censorship, because we can choose to close our own eyes instead of being blindfolded. Media literacy, let’s hope, is also the backbone of democracy, for it’ll help us realise that a televised coup (and many parliamentary sessions) is more obscene than televised breasts.

I opened with Ray Bradbury, so let me end with another sci-fi hero, Philip K Dick: “Things are seldom what they seem; skim milk masquerades as cream.” It’s time to turn off the TV.

Kong Rithdee is Deputy Life Editor, Bangkok Post.


Jaishree Balasubramanian

Press Trust of India: June 10, 2012

An 87-year-old epic silent film by Indian actor Himanshu Rai on Lord Buddha which was banned in Thailand has been screened for the first time in Bangkok in a movie hall, with a slight modern twist given by a live 15 member orchestra.

As the 1925 black and white film, The Light of Asia [], lit up the mega screen at Bangkok’s Scala theatre, one of the very few lone standing cinema halls in the city, the band sitting on either side of the screen played appropriate background music to the trumpeting of elephants, galloping horses and around the main stars, Prince Gautama, (Lord Buddha) played by dashing Himanshu Rai and his wife played by Sita Devi.

As Gautama silently wept, the violin played, helped by the koto’s murmuring melody, when he enters a contest with arch-nemesis Devadatta on horseback, tabla music came to fore.

The highlights were two Indian musicians, Ustad Matloob Hussain Khan on sitar, and Vasi Ahmad Khan on the tabla.

“There’s no problem (for a Muslim to play and sing) in a Buddhist film,” says Vasi, who started by reciting the Gayatri Manta for the films opening shot.

“Musicians have only one religion, and that is music. This is an old religious film, and it will be a special performance,” he said.

Indian Envoy Anil Wadhwa said that the embassy was asked to provide Indian musicians and the sitar and tabla were essential to give the background score since it was an Indian movie.

The fact that this was the first movie on Buddha and there are only two prints in the world gave it special significance, Wadhwa said adding that “close to 900 music and cinema lovers who watched the movie were impressed by the novelty of watching a silent movie with live music by international musicians.”


Kong Rithdee

Bangkok Post: June 9, 2012

“Cultural Surveillance”: Ladda Tangsupachai

Amidst the ballyhoo of black-screen TV, broadcast-rights rivalry, football fracas, reconciliation war and constitution horror, we return to visit the most beloved media agency of all: the Cultural Surveillance Office, aka the Rottweiler, the guardian of Thainess, or the Department of Propriety.

Last month, the Culture Ministry made a surprising move: they transferred (“promoted”) Ladda Tangsupachai, the controversial head of the surveillance office whose past record inspires shudders among artists, singers, actors, and anyone who dares test the limits of official appropriateness. Ms Ladda’s new post is analyst and supervisor of the southern cultural policy, an appointment that has sparked an impromptu joke about the South bearing the brunt, once again, of Central prejudices and conservatism.

 One of Ms Ladda’s last campaigns was against the fad of planking.

Whether or not there’s a political angle to this move is a moot point, one can never judge the depths of such a labyrinth. Ms Ladda’s latest involvement was to push for the new bill to drum up the funding for “safe and creative media” – a name that evokes either easy optimism or necessary caution, for “safe”, in linguistic cartwheeling can be a euphemism for censorship. The details of the law, which has been proposed to parliament, are not available, but the earlier draft contains a clause that the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission should inject money into the fund which will be distributed to “producers of safe content”, whatever that means. It was widely expected that Ms Ladda, a senior officer, would supervise the funding once the law had been passed. But now, no more.

While parliament, which has recently adopted the lively bar-room brawl and thuggish tournament style, is embroiled in the reconciliation mess, the “safe media” bill is likely to wait. But let’s make sure we keep an eye on it. Not that we don’t want safe TV, but we shouldn’t confuse precaution with prohibition, and protection with moral paranoia.

That last term is what we often attribute to a surveillance agency. Ms Ladda’s transfer ended her long tenure at the cultural watchdog marred by resentment, scandals, and even T-shirts bearing her infamous quote. To be honest, there have been sighs of relief at the news of her move. But to be fair, Ms Ladda, to whom I talked personally on a few occasions, is a steadfast believer in her cause: to protect the nobility of Thai culture and weed out unpleasant surprises, from short skirts to TV bitchfests. She’s a crusader on the eternal horseback to Jerusalem – her war cry is authentic, and her dogmatism is transparent. Her run-ins with the more liberal sections of society illustrate the wider contest to own, or define, the meaning of Thai culture in the 21st century.

It’d take hours to revisit her high-profile outcries at media “indecency’, but here are the two most infamous cases: in 2008, Ms Ladda gave an interview to Time magazine [,9171,1670261,00.html] and described Thai film audiences as “uneducated” and thus needing parenting from the ministry (somebody made T-shirts featuring the quote); then last year, she angered many by speaking out against a hit soap series and the portrayal of its men-lusting female lead, which led to an episode of national hysteria.

Lost in translation: Many Westerners believe their dogs to be enlightened. Ladda banned this image!

Symptomatic though not necessarily emblematic, Ms Ladda is easily villainised, sometimes unfairly. The problem is not her; the problem is the fact that the government blithely believes that something called the Cultural Surveillance Office is even necessary. As if we were a mansion so susceptible to cultural vandalism, or a terminal patient in need of 24-hour vigilance, or an ungodly girl under perpetual threat of demonic possession. The fact that we still need to spend tax money on this agency is an issue worthy of public hearing. And that the government still relies on the watchdog’s (dis) service betrays the feudal mindset that it believes the people are so weak they can’t think for themselves.

Society should be trusted to be its own watchdog. Top-down control isn’t working any more in the new environment of great flux, of rapid advances in technology, and of heady, global interconnectedness that keeps redefining “culture”. Civic bodies, consumers organisations, industry associations – say, TV producers or filmmakers – and the audiences themselves should be encouraged to have the power to control the media’s performance and to decide what’s appropriate and what’s not in an organic way. Governmental parenting is as dated as last week’s football results, and the Culture Ministry is too valuable to spend its time, like East German thought police, carrying out surveillance on the people. It’s a shame that they still don’t realise this at this hour.

Kong Rithdee is Deputy Life Editor, Bangkok Post

Jane Duncan

South African Civil Society Information Service:

June 12, 2012



Media freedom in South Africa has been receiving bad press recently, although most of the attention has focussed on threats to print and broadcasting freedom. Little attention has been paid to creeping censorship of the supposedly most democratic medium of all, namely the internet.

Over the past ten years, the government has developed a complex web of controls that has made internet censorship much more possible. Many legislative measures lie dormant, only to emerge when they are needed to curb controversial content.

In developing these controls, the government has relied on two of the three most popular reasons for curtailing internet freedom, namely protection of children, national security and protection of intellectual property. Unfortunately, governments often abuse these reasons to legitimise an internet control agenda.

Internet freedom is a hot topic globally. In the wake of the Wikileaks diplomatic cables saga and the North African uprisings, governments are recognising the power of online media and moving rapidly to control it. While portraying itself as a champion of internet freedom, the Barack Obama administration has been leading an assault on Internet freedom at the behest of an entertainment industry that wants express guarantees for its intellectual property.

Private companies are also enclosing the internet, erecting ‘walled gardens’ where users cannot access non-approved content. Social media users’ data is being mined to ‘sell’ them to advertisers, and procedures to opt out are often not user-friendly. These trends are all eroding the free and open nature of the internet. As a result, the internet of today is no longer the democratising, transformative medium that it promised to be ten years ago, in its pre-market formation phase.

Internet freedom has become topical in South Africa too, after the Film and Publications Board – a portfolio organisation of the Department of Home Affairs – used a section in the Film and Publication Act to classify disturbing or harmful or age-inappropriate material for children, to ban ‘The Spear’ painting for children under sixteen year of age. As the Goodman Gallery has taken the painting down, this classification now applies to online versions of the painting.

According to the Board’s judgement on applications for classification of the painting, ‘younger people and sensitive people may find the themes [in the exhibition] complex and troubling’. In announcing the decision to classify the painting, the Board’s Chief Executive Officer, Yoliswa Makhasi, argued that the painting was not being classified simply because of the exposure of genitals, but because the artwork ‘…has forced society to revisit its painful past’.

The painting and exhibition as a whole are not without their problems. The exhibition is an important critique of the growing culture of self-enrichment in the ruling party. But it is also at times didactic, simplistic and flirts dangerously with racial stereotypes. However, even problematic art should have its place in the sun, but the controversies around the painting have worked perfectly to the advantage of South Africa’s internet control proponents.

The Board’s attempt to prevent children from accessing the painting to shield them from South Africa’s social divisions, past and present, is deeply misguided and in fact dangerous. If these divisions are hidden away, then children will be denied important opportunities to understand the true nature of the society in which they live. They will not develop the coping skills necessary to deal with these less savoury aspects of South African society when they experience them in everyday life.

There are also inherent dangers in a government agency deciding what children can and cannot see, as this can easily lead to publications that are critical of the government being censored. The Board reasons for classifying the painting strongly suggest a ‘nanny state’ mentality and an underlying moral conservatism, rather than a legitimate concern with protecting children from harm.

Creeping censorship of the internet should be of as much concern as legacy media censorship, as the internet is likely to become ubiquitous in the future. The government’s decision to ensure internet-enabled set top boxes for digital terrestrial television will extend access, as will its plans to ensure universal access to the internet by 2019 via a national broadband network. Mobile internet coverage has also greatly increased internet access, and the licensing of Long Term Evolution networks will continue this trend.

With the passing of the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act, the government developed the capability to spy on Internet users. In the case of content originating outside the country, they can do so without an interception direction, which create space for wide scale abuses of the government’s extensive monitoring and surveillance capacity. Government appointed cyber-inspectors enjoy overbroad powers to inspect any website for evidence of cyber-crime, although this provision has not been enacted yet.

But the most significant setback to internet freedom occurred when the Film and Publications Board was given jurisdiction over internet content. This is in spite of the fact that internet service providers also self-police internet content through a notice and take-down procedure run by the Internet Service Providers Association of South Africa.

A controversial amendment was introduced to the Film and Publications Act requiring any publication, with the exception of a newspaper publisher recognised by the Press Ombudsman’s office, to be submitted for classification if it contains the following material: sexual violence which violates or shows disrespect for the right to human dignity of any person, degrades a person or constitutes incitement to cause harm; advocates propaganda for war; incites violence; or advocates hatred based on any identifiable group characteristic and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.

In the case of hate speech and sexual violence, the provisions are broader than the Constitutional limitations on freedom of expression, which makes them unjustifiably censorious.

The published materials falling within these categories would either be age restricted or banned entirely. Materials that would ordinarily be banned under this section would be age restricted if they were found to contain public interest content, or had artistic or scientific merit. This was a significant departure from the initial Act, which maintained that public interest or artistic content should not be restricted at all.

The main problem with these provisions is that they give the government the power to exercise prior restraint over published material, and even censor material critical of its own performance.

There is disagreement over whether these provisions apply to the internet. What adds to the confusion is that the Board has failed to set out classification guidelines for internet content, which implies that they do not consider these provisions to apply to the internet. However, the definition of ‘publication’ in the Act explicitly refers to the internet, which suggests that these provisions do apply.

If they do, then online publishers have a mess of massive proportions on their hands. These provisions are un-implementable in the online environment, yet failure to implement them is a criminal offence.

For one thing, the provisions would discriminate against online publishers, as the Act would subject them to a pre-publication classification procedure that other media are not subjected to. Broadcasters and newspapers publishers are not required to submit controversial material for classification, mainly because they resisted attempts to make the Act apply to them. If they publish unethical or unlawful material, then they are subjected to post-publication judgements and sanction. This means that the government has the power to censor the internet much more easily than other media.

A further problem is that there is no practical way for online publishers to restrict access to age restricted material, especially material hosted by sites outside the country. Attempts to do so are a fool’s errand, given the distributed and global nature of the internet. Unlike traditional publishers, online publishers cannot wrap their publications in plastic wrappers.

If age-restriction measures cannot be applied easily to the internet, then arguably the Act requires the material to be prohibited outright; even it is of a public interest nature or has artistic or scientific merit. This cannot be allowed to stand in a democracy.

Thankfully, the constitutionality of this section of the Act is being challenged in the Constitutional Court. Public interest law clinic Section 16 has intervened on an amicus curiae basis to make the Internet freedom arguments. Hopefully, they will succeed.

What is the alternative to government control of the internet? An analysis of the take-down procedures and acceptable use policies of major internet service providers reveals that self-regulation is often as, if not more, censorious than government regulation because private companies tend to be risk-averse, implementing terms of service that serve them rather than internet users.

As media theorists James Curran, Natalie Fenton and Des Freedman have argued recently, ‘… if we are to realise the dreams of the internet pioneers, then we need to challenge the context and demand a fresh set of proposals to empower public oversight of and participation in online networks…[This], then, is a critical moment in the internet’s history … the internet is at a turning point’.


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