Harsh fines or jail time in store for cyberbullies and online inciters of violence | #socialmedia

South Africa’s amended legislation tightens online content distribution.

  • New legislation aims to regulate online content and allows the removal of prohibited content on social media.
  • Authorities say the new legislation does not trample Constitutional rights, but is meant to regulate online harm.
  • Offenders face a fine ranging from R50 000 to R750 000 or jail time.

New, tighter legislation regulating the dissemination of online content finally kicked in this week, with punitive fines for information producers – whether for consumers of social media or film. 

The Films and Publications Amendment Act was signed into law by President Cyril Ramaphosa in October 2019, and drew censure from critics who feared it would enable censorship.

Government authorities have maintained that the law – far from imposing online censorship – is aimed at ensuring online protection in a race to regulate online harms.

The act expands the powers of the Film and Publication Board to regulate online content, and allows the removal of prohibited content on social media. This includes content deemed as propaganda for war, inciting violence and advocacy of hatred.

The dissemination of offensive online content is punishable by a suite of penalties, including fines or even jail time.

“This is very historic in the manner that online content is going to be regulated, going forward,” said Philly Mapalane, Deputy Minister of the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies.

The Film and Publications Board (FPB) will monitor compliance with the act, and the organisation insists that its existence poses no threat to freedom of speech and media freedom. Offenders face a fine ranging from R50 000 to R750 000.

The FPB council chairperson, Zama Mkosi, said there was a need for legislation that takes into consideration the balance between protecting the right of freedom of expression and protection against harm, citing cases of online cyberbullying and dissemination of personal material without consent, as well as pornographic material.

“We cannot overlook the fact that the online space brings challenges and benefits,” she said adding that digital platforms have created space for trauma, including the incitement of public violence and the “potentially disastrous effects that the circulation of fake news can create in destabilising the country.”

Key aspect of the act include:

  • Allowing the removal of prohibited content on social media, which includes contents that incites violence and hate speech.
  • It criminalises the distribution of intimate or invasive images without the person’s consent.
  • Increases the penalties for possession of child pornography from five to ten years in jail.
  • Provides victims of online revenge pornography with legal recourse.
  • Only commercial online distributors are required to register and classify films, games and certain publication.

Any person who knowingly distributes information that amounts to propaganda for war, incites imminent violence, or advocates hate speech is liable fine not exceeding R150 000 if convicted or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding two years, or both a fine and imprisonment.

“No person may distribute through any medium including the internet and social media, any film, game or publication which amounts to propaganda for war, incites imminent violence or advocates hate speech.”

The acting CEO of FPB, Mashilo Boloka, cited the deadly July 2021 unrest, which resulted in widespread looting, where social media was used to incite violence.

“As a country we could have chosen the option of shutting them down, as it has been done in other countries but we did not do that … but now the act it here, it provides us with the parameters to act.”

The legislation comes at a time when improved internet distribution in the country has enabled wider access to a range of online content generation tools such as blogs, personal websites and other forms of expression through social media platforms.

Although only commercial content producers would be regulated, the legislation will still apply if it is established that a website or a social media page engages in prohibited content, and anyone has a right to lodge a complaint against it with the FBP. 

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