Social media ‘censorship plan’ for South Africa is on the way

Less than two weeks after president Cyril Ramaphosa approved the Films and Publications Amendment Act, South Africa’s Film and Publications Board (FPB) is already dealing with its first major test case.

The Amendment Act, which came into effect from 1 March 2022, significantly expands the FPB’s mandate, migrating it from a simple classification authority to a fully-fledged regulator, with the legitimate powers to issue and renew licences (certificates), accredit distributors and impose fines, in case of non-compliance.

The Act also gives the FPB power to regulate almost all online content published in South Africa – not just the movies and television it has previously regulated.

The regulator has also confirmed that it is now developing new guidelines about what can be shared on social media platforms.

The Wife 

These new regulations are expected to be put to the test in the coming weeks after the FPB raised concerns about an episode of the Showmax streaming series, The Wife.

Specific concerns have been raised around a graphic scene in the show which was subsequently shared over social media – including services such as Twitter and WhatsApp.

Multichoice-owned Showmax currently has an online distribution agreement with FPB, which allows it to use the FPB classification guidelines to self-classify, by aligning the ratings of their content to the FPB rating system.

“Notwithstanding the self-classification provisions provided for in section 18C of the Films & Publications Amendment Act, the FPB still has the power, as required by the same Act to regularly audit the distributor’s compliance with its rating system and hear and/or adjudicate public complaints regarding classified material,” it said.

FPB to take action 

The FPB said it has, as a preliminary step, brought these to the attention of Multichoice to allow it an opportunity to respond to these in writing within seven days.

“The Films and Publications Amendment Act (2019) allows for a co-regulation system with online content distributors, where the distributor assigns an age rating and classifiable elements to alert sensitive viewers to these scenes within the content, enabling them to make an informed decision whether to watch or not.

“The 16 VSNL assigned by Showmax to The Wife will be compliance checked against the justification given by Showmax in the classification report that all distributors with online distributor agreements to self-classify need to complete.”

Should the review of the classification rating of the episode be found to be incorrect, the FPB has the powers in terms of section 18J of the FP Amendment Act to re-classify any material that was previously classified in terms of the Act. The findings of the compliance check will be shared with the media and public, it said.

Online circulation is a concern 

While the FPB has historically had the power to introduce and regulate age restrictions  – the new regulations also give it the power to tackle offensive content circulated online.

“As the FPB, we are worried about the distribution and wider circulation of this clip by members of the public via social media,” said FPB acting chief executive Dr. Mashilo Boloka. “These clips have the potential to cause harm if accessed by children on unregulated online platforms.”

“The Films & Publications Amendment Act does not in any way limit the sharing of content by members of the public as long as the content is not harmful, illegal and/or prohibited by the Act.”

Boloka said it will in due course publish guidelines relating to the sharing of content via digital platforms to the members of the public so that they know what is permissible within the new law.

“The spread of this material on social media platforms underlines the need for vigilance by the FPB to curb the illegal distribution of harmful and prohibited materials so as to protect the public, including children. We are putting in systems to monitor non-compliance with the new act, including the online rapid response team and the Enforcement Committee,” Dr Boloka said.


Read: South Africa has introduced new internet censorship laws – what you should know

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Social media ‘censorship plan’ for South Africa is on the way