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FPB defers to Press Code for online content

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The Film and Publication Board (FPB) has, in principle, recognised the authority of the Press Council of South Africa (PCSA) to regulate online press content published by PCSA members.

This follows a meeting last Monday between the FPB and the PCSA, South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) and the Interactive Advertising Bureau of South Africa (IAB SA), during which proposed revisions to the structure of the PCSA and the Press Code were presented to the FPB.

Participating in a panel debate at the SANEF AGM in Auckland Park on Saturday, FPB CEO Themba Wakashe endorsed the revised Press Code, commenting that “the media is in good hands”.

The FPB’s plans for classification of online content have come under scrutiny following the publication in March of its Draft Online Regulation Policy.

At its core, the Draft Policy requires the pre-classification, prior to publication, of any “film, game or certain publication” according to the FPB’s guidelines, and explicitly includes within its scope user-generated content distributed via social media platforms. The definitions of “film” and “certain publication” are broad enough to cover video or content in almost any form (including news and current affairs content).

In terms of the Draft Policy’s current wording, anyone who publishes, or facilitates the publication of content – be it Google, Apple, Facebook, South Africa’s ISPs, news media, individual bloggers or businesses – stands to be caught in the FPB’s wide net, and would be required to submit content to the FPB for classification before uploading it to the Internet.

The FPB is currently collecting oral and written submissions from the public on its proposals, but many commentators have argued that the draft policy would amount to an unconstitutional limitation on freedom of expression, that it is unlikely to succeed in its aim of preventing children from accessing content of a violent or sexual nature, and that it fails to address a large number of implementation, operational and enforcement challenges that the FPB would face.

Section 16 of the Films and Publications Act (FPA) currently exempts publishers of newspapers and magazines recognised by the Press Ombudsman (and which subscribe to the Press Code) from the FPB classification requirements that apply generally to all other forms of publication.

The PCSA, an independent body which consists of members of both the media and the public, and is chaired by a retired judge, has historically handled complaints relating to traditional hard-copy newspapers and press.

There has however been some confusion surrounding the handling of complaints relating to the growing volumes of news content published online. To address this, the PCSA has been working closely with the IAB to ensure that complaints relating to digital content are dealt with appropriately.

The IAB is a non-profit organisation dedicated to the growth of digital business in South Africa, and represents over 200 of the country’s largest and most influential online publishers, brands, digital advertising and media agencies, and educational institutions.

The proposed new “Code of Ethics for South African Print and Online Media”, which expands on and would replace the current Press Code, ensures that press content is covered irrespective of the medium via which it is published.
This expressly includes print, online and social media content, as well as digitally-streamed audio and video content. The new Code also extends to user-generated content (UGC) posted to publisher websites, incorporating basic principles and guidelines as to the management of UGC with which publishers would be expected to comply.

The proposed revisions to the structure of the PCSA and the Press Code are the culmination of extensive work and close collaboration between the IAB SA, PCSA, and SANEF since 2014.

The FPB indicated during Monday’s meeting – and again at Saturday’s SANEF AGM – that it was satisfied with the draft code and proposal presented, and acknowledged for the record that the FPA exemption would extend to the Web sites and online properties of traditional newspapers, as well as to news publishers who are only active online, provided they become members of the PCSA and comply with the code.

The endorsement in principle by the FPB of the proposals tabled by the PCSA, SANEF and IAB SA is a welcome signal of the FPB’s willingness to engage and cooperate with the media, industry and the public, and represents a substantial step in the right direction towards a more constitutional and equitable balancing of freedom of expression with the need to protect children and vulnerable persons from harmful content.