July 3, 2012
Rights in democracy, the naked truth
Bangkok Post: June 24, 2012
What the 23-year-old female contestant on Thailand’s Got Talent painted with her breasts was a mess. It wasn’t art. The performance was crude and tasteless, cheap and tawdry, appealing to the lowest common denominator. Be that as it may, she had every right to perform, with the appropriate blurring of images, of course.
Last Sunday’s performance on the popular reality TV show definitely made an impact. The audience cheered. The two male judges loved it. The lone female judge walked off the panel.
”This is degrading to Thai culture!” That’s the most frequently invoked cry against any speech or expression deemed ”un-Thai”. But according to this logic, wouldn’t Thai culture then be narrow-minded and intolerant, incapable of embracing the differences and diversities that come with freedom and democracy? I hope not. I find narrow-minded intolerance degrades Thai culture.
Civil rights is a double-edged sword. It’s liberating, but also corrupting. It frees individuals, but also divides society. To embrace civil rights is to be, if not accepting, then at least tolerant, even of the hopelessly stupid and the downright idiotic.
Society is divided over the scandal. The conservatives are appalled. The liberals say it’s art. The always ultra-fragile Cultural Ministry is shocked. The National Broadcasting and Television Commission (NBTC) fined Channel 3 operator Bangkok Entertainment Company (BEC) 500,000 baht for failing to censor ”inappropriate content” according to Article 37 of the 2008 Broadcasting Act.
Meanwhile, the girl and her parents were pressured to offer public apologies.
News stories have it that Work Point Entertainment, producers of the show, engineered the topless performance for ratings, that the girl was hired for 10,000 baht and that the judges were even in on it. However, this has not been proven, even if we believe reality TV capable of such treachery.
As a writer who can trace any issue to the democratic development of a nation, I’d like to look at the performance in this light.
Civil rights are a class of rights that protect individuals’ freedoms from unwarranted infringement by governments and private organisations, and ensure one’s ability to participate in civil life without discrimination or repression. The right pertain to life and liberty, speech and expression _ the right to make art, even tasteless art, and not be discriminated against or repressed by the establishment.
However, there are limits to these rights, such as when a saying or doing something can cause harm. Yelling ”fire” in a crowded theatre and causing a stampede is not exercising one’s freedom of speech. Rather, it is criminal negligence.
The breast baring did not cause a stampede; all it did was offend the fragile sensibilities of the conservative public and members of the traditional establishment, who instead of exercising their freedom of choice by clicking to another channel, invoked their authoritarian mind-set to discriminate and repress.
In every society there are the right-wing conservatives and the left-wing liberals _ the yin and the yang in balance. Let them debate and argue, it can only benefit society’s democratic advancement. Leaning too far to one side would upset the cosmic balance and the yin might miss the yang.
However, while Thailand is democratic in theory, in practical terms the cultural and political mindset is still entrenched in authoritarian values. Hence, instead of debating, the default response is to discriminate and repress, with government agencies interfering and infringing, in this case the Cultural Ministry and the NBTC. Let there be Fox news and let there be MSNBC news. Let there be a yellow channel and let there be a red channel. However, let there not be government discrimination and repression. The blurring of the naked breasts, since it’s free TV, should be an acceptable compromise to both sides.
When government agencies discriminate and repress, it sets a standard whereby we only have rights if they meet with the approval of the morals police. That is not democracy. That is authoritarianism, control and conformity. And that is backward and dangerous.
To appreciate freedom, democracy and human rights, one must understand that humans have different natures. We are martyrs and morons; saints and scumbags; geniuses and idiots. We should appreciate the former and tolerate the latter, as long as they don’t cause a stampede or the like.
But let’s bring balance to the yin and the yang, because we should not let the liberal faction have their heads too far up in the clouds.
The argument that painting with bare breasts on national TV is an artistic expression is moot and mundane. We live in an age where one could throw faeces on a canvas and call it art.
The concept of art is highly subjective; everyone has his or her own interpretation. My own interpretation is that the naked, painted breasts of the show’s female judge, Pornchita ‘Benz’ na Songkhla, on the cover of Image Magazine, is art _ beautiful art, in fact, simply because she looks good.
The painting created by the Thailand’s Got Talent contestant, however, is not art to me. It was just messy colours on a canvas; I could do the same thing with my bare feet. Had she painted the Last Supper with her bare breasts, then I would have been impressed.
But that is just my opinion. No one has to like it. No one has to approve of it. And I don’t force my interpretation on anyone else _ acceptance and tolerance are key.
So when I clicked onto a Bangkok Post online article that showed the fashion photo of Benz’s painted bare breasts, I went ”Wow, let’s have another look,” and was tempted to click ”like”.
On the contrary, watching that particular episode of Thailand’s Got Talent, I was not really interested, though I did watch the whole thing through. But the point is I could have just switched the channel.
In fact, both pairs of breasts were used in an exploitative fashion. One pair just so happened to look good, while the other made a mess.
Freedom is not an easy thing to handle. It begs for an open mind. It requires hard work to cope with. It makes life more difficult, because instead of being blissfully blind, deaf and dumb through censoring, we are exposed to the realities of the world, both good and bad. We can choose to either resist it or to learn from it, becoming more intelligent in the process.
The difference is the stagnation versus the advancement of a democratic society in Thailand.
Of course, painted bare breasts on national TV which children can watch makes parenting difficult. But that’s what TV ratings are for and that’s what parenting is _ teaching the child, not censoring. Freedom isn’t for the narrow-minded and the inept. You take the good, you take the bad, that’s a fact of life.
This is not because we love bare breasts (although we do), but more because we love freedom. In aspiring to become a democratic society, we must embrace civil rights. However, we should not exploit those rights. The failure of democracy is true and certain if we intend to corrupt democratic values for fame and ratings, power and profit _ both in the political and social spectrums. So if it proves true that Work Point Entertainment purposely engineered that inartistic breast painting display, then that’s public fraud, worth a civil lawsuit, because it is good old corruption.
There must be a balance struck between conservative and liberal forces, reached through reason and decency, not discrimination and repression. This means the balance will never be reached, since we should know better than to expect reason and decency out of any society, not just this one. But we do aim for the heavens, so that we might get to the stars. For if we aim low then we’re stuck in the smog and pollution. While if we don’t even make an attempt then we struggle in the gutter.
I for one think Thai culture is open-minded and tolerant, embracing the diversity that comes with freedom and democracy, appreciating civil rights and individualism. But this will only be a delusion if society at large does not agree with me.
Contact Voranai Vanijaka via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Pussy-painting. But is it art?
Awesome video: http://vimeo.com/28547433
Shigeko Kubota performed her Vagina Painting on 4 July 1965 at Cinemateque, East 4th Street New York during Perpetual Fluxus Festival.
In an act both evocative and critical of action painting, Kubota attached a paintbrush under her short skirt and squatted to make painterly marks on a large piece of paper on the floor. In this way Kubota challenged the assumptions still prevalent in the art world at the time which connected masculinity with creative genius. This work is one of many feminist takes on abstract expressionism, a genre characterised by macho male practitioners.
Kubota’s work was part of the Fluxus movement, an international network of artists, composers and designers, including Yoko Ono and George Maciunas, noted for blending different artistic media and disciplines. Fluxus takes its name from the Latin word meaning ‘flow’ and is indebted to the Japanese movement Gutai which emphasized the artist’s body, gesture and the beauty of destruction and decay.
Further feminist performance works dealing with the expressive use of paint can be found within the ‘Action Painting‘ category and include: Carolee Schneemann’s Eye Body (1963), Helen Almeida’s Inhabited Painting (Pintura Habitada) (1975), Linda Benglis’ Blatt (1968-70) and Niki de Saint Phalle’s Fire at Will (1961-63) among others.
Kubota’s Vagina Painting was re-enacted by Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen in her piece Never Mind Pollock performed in various exhibitions worldwide including at “Once More with Feeling” at Tate Modern on 27 June 2009 and Re.Act Feminism at the Akademie der Kunst in Berlin in January of the same year.
[FACT has it on good advice that this ancient artform is still being practiced nightly in Bangkok…and with colours!…and no censorship.]
June 28, 2012
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.
June 24, 2012
[CJ Hinke of FACT comments: We like boobs (a lot!) And let’s face it, everybody’s got ‘em. As a ThaiVisa poster noted: “Thailand’s Got Tits!” Boobs are depicted in murals in nearly every wat in Thailand and regularly appear on govt webpages. Boobs are beautiful! So screw all this ultramoralistic, political posturing. What’s really obscene is breast implants. Lewdness is in the mind of the beholder…and a lot of govt bureaucrats apparently have dirty minds. Incidentally, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission issued the top fine to Channel 3—THB500,000 (we hope FACT co-founder and NBTC commissioner Supinya Klangnarong boycotted this travesty) even though the boobs were pixelated. Guess even pixels are immoral. (Like isn’t the purpose of pixelation to hide the nasty bits?) I suppose none of these prudes have been to an upstairs Patpong pussy-painting show!]
Thailand’s topless talent show shock: Are some breasts more equal than others?
Siam Voices: June 19, 2012
It’s bound to happen again – and again. That is, yet another scandal exposing tender feminine flesh and Thailand’s uneasy relationship with female breasts. Why, for all its peculiar mammophobia (the correct term is mastrophobia by the way), Thailand just can’t get enough of breasts, especially the bare kind. It’s an untreated national psychosis.
This time the Thai fear (or fixation) of female breasts was stirred by a Thailand’s Got Talent contestant, who stripped and painted with her bare breasts on national television. She definitely shocked the audience and got the lone female judge quite upset.
Given the studio audience’s reactions – a mixture of gasps, laughs, smiles and cheers – it was clear the audience was more delighted than not. The two male judges let the contestant go on to the next round, while the female judge was aghast, outraged and walked off the stage in a hissy fit. See for yourself in this YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sDlOxMLk_bY&feature=player_embedded.
Personally, this bare-boob painting neither tickles my artistic sensory response nor offends me. But who am I to judge? Is it talent? Is it art? Is it a cheap, surefire way to get noticed? I’m not quite sure what to make of it. As it happens it triggered quite passionate reactions among the conservative Thai public (and many chuckles in the not-so-conservative quarters).
Swiftly and unfailingly the Ministry of Culture (abbreviated here as ThaiMiniCult) came out to express its customary outrage. Culture Minister Ms. Sukumol Khunploem said:
There must be limits on artistic expression. I was shocked when I saw the clip. The ministry will meet the organisers of Thailand’s Got Talent to get an explanation.
Since the show was pre-recorded, the “inappropriate” content should have been edited out, she added.
Then there’s the famous Ms. Rabiabrat Pongpanich, a staunch defender of Thai family values and self-appointed Thai culture watchdog, who growled for the Bangkok Post:
Thai society does not accept this. The police will consider whether this is obscene. This also shows that Thai society is ailing and it’s becoming a sex-consuming society.
Their reactions are all very predictable really. We’ve heard all this before from both ThaiMiniCult and Ms. Rabiabrat, whom I myself have honored as one of the leading Thai culturalists (afflicted by a grand delusion of Thai CULTure with accompanying symptoms of historical mammary amnesia. See more here.)
Art or obscenity?
What is art is highly subjective, especially when it comes to abstract painting. For instance, which is art to you, among all these silly abstract paintings? I reckon what’s identified as art in this case would be different from one person to the next.
And what’s a paintbrush as an artistic tool as opposed to limbs, boobs or trunks?
Upon further reflection the bare-boob painting reminds me of Thai elephant paintings, though admittedly the comparison might have worked better if the artist had used her nose instead of her breasts as the painting tool, but then that wouldn’t have been so interesting, would it?
Come to think of it, are elephant-trunk paintings art? Would anyone – human or elephant – complain that this “Foxy Lady” painting is obscene?
The judge vs. the artist
In any case, what’s interesting here isn’t whether or not bare-breast painting is art, or how much talent there is in the artist. What interests me is the female judge, who to me is a stunningly beautiful woman, even when she cringes. But more than her beauty, I was captivated by her reactions.
The judge Pornchita Na Songkhla, who is a highly versatile talent herself (multiple award-winning actress, model, singer, presenter, spokesperson, cultural ambassador, talk show host, etc. – see her Wikipedia page) delivered her verdict in a style befitting a judge on Thailand’s top talent show. Benz (her nickname) told the bare-breast artist after she completed her painting performance (at 2:40 min):
I’m not saying it’s bad, but it’s inappropriate in Thai culture. Benz does not support this sort of thing.
Judge Benz’s hauteur was impressive, but the contestant took it admirably well, with a nice smile as you can see.
But Judge Benz didn’t stop there. After her fellow male judges gave the contestant a green light to go on to the next round, both agreeing the performance was art, she cried, “Are you serious?,” maintaining her impressive judgely hauteur. Then after a few more expressions of incredulity (at 3.42 min), she swung her axe with a no less impressive theatrical flare:
Incidentally I’m not artistic. So no go from me!
And some more:
I really don’t get it! I don’t get it! I don’t like it!
And then she stormed off stage. Boy, did I enjoy her theatrics!
The master vs. the apprentice
Judge Benz’s outrage was delicious. Almost as delicious as (what looked like) a chocolate-covered body of hers – beautifully, artistically photographed less than two years ago. No wonder she was outraged! (Look at the bare-breast artist on the right. What a haphazard, unpolished way to make art with a woman’s body, Benz must have thought. Not to mention one can’t eat paint!)
It must have been painful for Benz to watch the girl’s inexperienced attempt at sauciness. For this Benz has my sympathy. The aspiring artist definitely could learn from the master like Benz. I am inclined to think that Benz must have just used MiniCult’s “inappropriate in Thai culture” reason as an excuse to cover the fact that she couldn’t bear watching such ineptness in an amateur. It would explain why she was so angry.
I imagine, while Benz was wincing, several glorious images of herself were passing through her mind. If she was so inclined, she might have snapped at the contestant, “Watch and learn, girl!”
And if you have to wear clothes, wear them in style!.. Shed that carpenter shirt. No, no, not here! Keep it on!
It’s undeniable, the skills of the apprentice are light years away from those of the master. There is absolutely no doubt that there is much Judge Benz could teach the bare-breast painter, if she would ever be inclined to accept an apprentice. (Get more glimpses of Judge Benz’s masterly skills here.)
Just one small question clings to my mind though: How the talented Judge Benz would explain to the Ministry of Culture (which once employed her as its spokesperson) how the bare-breast painting on her show was inappropriate in Thai culture, and how her modeling for the IMAGE Magazine in 2010 was not.
Would her explanation be “some breasts are more artistically equal than others”?
h/t Bangkok Pundit for Benz’s modeling images, which are from Postjung.com.
… UPDATE: (1:50pm 19 June 2012) …
This bare-breast painting show has got a huge buzz not only in Thailand but also internationally. There has supposedly been so much outrage that the Thailand’s Got Talent’s producer came out to apologize to the Thai public. I bet the TGT people were counting on morally hyper-sensitive Thais’ reactions to garner domestic and international headlines. (There are even suggestions that the bare-breast painter was hired to go on the show. If that’s true, the show would pretty much have been staged, possibly even Judge Benz’s outrage. The staging is entirely plausible given the nature of Got Talent shows in other countries.)
Credit goes to the crafty TGT producer Work Point or whoever in TGT that approved the bare-breast painter to go on the show. The stunt, if it was a stunt, has certainly worked. Even realizing this, I still can’t resist. TGT has certainly given much for the public to discuss. Thailand does need more discussion on sexuality and could loosen up a lot, especially concerning the female sex.
This morning, a Twitter friend shared a YouTube video of another topless TGT contestant from last year, a young man who showed a lot more than bare breasts. See Judge Benz’s reactions to the male contestant’s nudity: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZeWIwu7g-SY&feature=player_embedded
The gender reversal of the contestant and the reversed reactions of the one female and two male judges give some food for thought. Staged or not, it’d appear that not all Thai breasts are equal, and some breasts are viewed and treated as artistically more equal than others, depending on gender, timing, and perhaps whether the show needs a scandal to boost its ratings. And when it comes to outrage, women can be counted on to bear the brunt and show expected contempt for “culturally inappropriate” display of bare breasts.
h/t Associated Press’s Thanyarat Doksone for the YouTube video from last year
Kaewmala is a writer, a blogger and an avid twitterer. She blogs at thaiwomantalks.com and is a provocateur of Thai language, culture and politics @thai_talk. Kaewmala is the author of a book that looks at the linguistic and cultural aspects of Thai sexuality called “Sex Talk”.
June 24, 2012
Bangkok Post: June 9, 2012
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.
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 [http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1670261,00.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.
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
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’.
June 10, 2012
BBG Decries Cambodian Government Cancellation of VOA, RFA Coverage During National Election
Voice of America: June 5, 2012
“These attempts to silence RFA and VOA are counterproductive to the goals of building a democratic society in Cambodia.”
The Broadcasting Board of Governors yesterday condemned the Cambodian Ministry of Information’s decision to force FM stations to stop airing election programming from Radio Free Asia and the Voice of America.
The ministry prohibited five affiliate stations in Cambodia from running Khmer-language RFA and VOA programs on Saturday, June 2 and Sunday, June 3 — the day of national commune elections. The shows were all taken off the air without notice.
“This action runs contrary to the principles of free and fair elections,” said BBG Presiding Governor Michael Lynton. “News and information programs help shape a well-educated citizenry and should be encouraged, not denied. These attempts to silence RFA and VOA are counterproductive to the goals of building a democratic society in Cambodia.”
RFA and VOA play a critical role in informing the Cambodian electorate on fundamental election issues, and they provide a platform for the full spectrum of political opinions in the country. Due to government-imposed restrictions on political coverage by all media to avoid undue influence on the elections’ outcome, their programs on Sunday were focused on information necessary to voting, such as when polling stations were to open and close.
Two VOA Khmer Radio programs on June 3 were broadcast as normal on an AM frequency, via short wave and online.
Court says YouTube not obligated to control content
Agence France-Presse: May 30, 2012
A Paris court on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit against YouTube filed by French television, saying the video-sharing website was not obligated to control content of uploaded material.
A Paris court dismissed a lawsuit against YouTube filed by French television, saying the video-sharing website was not obligated to control content of uploaded material.
YouTube is “a priori not responsible for the content of videos posted on its website” and “is under no obligation to control the content of videos posted online,” said the ruling by the Tribunal de Grande Instance, a civil court that adjudicates major cases.
The court ordered the national private TF1 channel and its affiliates, which had sued YouTube, to pay 80,000 euros ($100,000) in court costs.
TF1 had sued YouTube in 2008 after various videos were posted on the website, including television shows and interviews to which the channel said it had commercial rights.
The channel had accused YouTube of unfair competition, saying it had profitted from the videos at TF1’s expense.
The court rejected the argument, saying the channel failed to show any loss of sales.
YouTube France hailed the decision, with chief Christophe Muller saying the ruling “represents a victory for the Internet and for all those who use it to exchange ideas and information.”
“This decision defends the right of innovation on content platforms generated by users, allowing them to do even more to help French artists and creators to reach new audiences in France and abroad,” he said.
A spokesman for TF1 said the channel was surprised by the decision and was studying options to appeal the ruling.
Google bought YouTube in 2006 for $1.65 billion.