Saturday, March 2, 2013

Censorship in Malawi: From 1968 to February 2013

What is the history of censorship in Malawi?

Censorship was established in 1968 under the Censorship and Control of Entertainment Act. Censorship Board draws its mandate from the same act which is to regulate films, public entertainment and publications for the sake of public morals and any other matters related to the same. The law was modelled on similar regulations from the Western countries which are founded on the undeniable fact that the content for films, public entertainment and publications may offend the audience, or even the larger public, and therefore should be subjected to regulation.

As an added responsibility, the Board is mandated to regulate public theatres (facilities used for films and other types of public entertainment) used for public entertainment. This is in terms of the content of the public performances and the physical specifications of the public entertainment facilities.

Some years back, Government embarked on the Censorship Reform Program whose key components are:

i. To review the censorship law so that the responsibilities of the Censorship Board is aligned to the freedom of expression and other democratic rights that are guaranteed in the Malawi Constitution

ii. To enact new legislation to govern the regulation of films and public entertainment and establish a successor institution to the Censorship Board with revised mandate, duties, regulations and guidelines as recommended by the censorship law review and in line with international best practices

iii. To embark on institutional capacity development for the successor institution so as to effectively discharge the new mandate and responsibilities as ushered in by the new legislation.

iv. To overhaul the operations of the Censorship Board so that its programs and services are guided by best practices in the regulation of films and public entertainment

Censorship law review exercise was commissioned to the Malawi Law Commission which carried the exercise and submitted its report and recommendations to Government. All preparatory work for the Classification of Films and Public Entertainment Bill is completed.

The Censorship Board currently runs four core technical services. Film classification services, regulation of public entertainment performances and public entertainment facilities, law enforcement against pornography, and public education on censorship regulations

2. When we say culture, what are we talking about?

-The post naming system of cultural standards officers is more of an administrative matter and does not represent any change in the technical programs of the Censorship Board.This was a result of the functional review exercise that was carried out in all ministries and departments in 2004. For Censorship Board, the exercise recommended change of institutional name to Cultural Standards Board and change all technical posts to cultural standards officers.

-In 1998 Censorship Board was moved from OPC to be one of the Divisions in the Department of Culture. The change in institutional name was meant to re-align this office with the overall responsibilities of the Department of Culture which is to protect, preserve and promote culture in Malawi.Under the new institutional name, the functions and overall mandate would remain as under the Censorship Actand as stated under Question 1.

-During the same time, the censorship law review –as carried out by the Law Commission and which was the initial phase of the Censorship Reform Program- had also just been concluded. The censorship law review reportrecommended new legislation and a successor institution to the Censorship Board, and it was in the best interest of these recommendations that thechange to Cultural Standards Board was pended.

-Since the functional review was an administrative exercise, it became imperative that, while waiting for the enactment of the new legislation, the new ‘post naming’ system ofcultural standards officers be maintainedas human resource authorities in Government had already given a nod to such proposal. This is only an administrative matter and is not meant to change the overall mandate of Censorship Board as stated under the Censorship Act.

-A new institution will be established in line with the proposed Classification of Films and Public Entertainment Bill, and this will come with a new system for the various technical posts. This will be part of the Censorship Law Reform Program which Government started some years back.

3. Does the Censorship Board regulate cultures? To what extent?

Censorship Board is a regulator guided by the Censorship Act.Our work is strictly guided by the Censorship Act which spells out regulations for films, film shops/libraries, film making,facilities used for public entertainment, publications, and public entertainment performances. Regulation is done through the various licences, permits, classification certificates, film classification services, routine inspections, investigations and law enforcement campaigns. We have incorporated public education campaign to complement our efforts to enforce regulations.

4. Before we proceed, do you think censorship is still relevant these days- especially with freedom of expression Malawians are enjoying?

That question was the subject of the Censorship Law Review exercise as carried out by the Malawi Law Commission. Government also carried out national wide consultations on the relevance of the Censorship Board in light of 2004 Malawi Constitution. I refer you tothe Law Commission and its report on the review of the Censorship law.

5. At what level does censorship become relevant in public entertainment?

-The current censorship Act had two main purposes. To regulate films and publications through censoring(regulation of content), and to be the means to regulate the public entertainment sector. The two issues were from the start conceived to be quite different but very convenient to be regulated under one legislation.

That is why the Act was named Censorship and Control of Entertainment Act. For argument sake, the responsible office may have been called Censorship and Entertainments Board to highlight and emphasize that entertainments is a separate issue altogether. Other than regulating content of the performances, regulation of entertainments goes beyond matters of Censorship.

The Censorship Act regulate public entertainment in two main ways. The content of the public performances through entertainment permits; and the physical standards of facilities used for public entertainment facilities through licences. The Act also empowers the officials of the board to attend public entertainment events free of charge for purposes of monitoring public entertainment regulations.

-Four decades after the Censorship Act was enacted, experience has shown that regulation of public entertainment is still relevant as seen in:

Regulation of Offensive, Morally corrupt and Insulting content

What you may perform at public entertainment may sometimes surely offend the audience, or even the larger public, than just being a piece of entertainment hence the need for regulation. Content that is morally offensive, incites hatred or public disorder, subjects others to public contempt are all issues that justify regulation.

It is the same framework of regulations that apply to broadcasting content. And it is the same framework of regulations that other countries enforce in politically volatile situations to avoid incitingviolence and public disorder incited by political differences. A good example is that Kenya has banned hate speech including content for blogging during their general elections.

Public performances should not subject others to public contempt; and should not contain excessive explicit content, and there should be a system to inform and protect the audience in case the content would offend others. We did just that with the Nude Art Exhibition held recently in Blantyre.

A System to Regulate Substandard Public Film Theatres

-Regulations for public entertainment have become very convenient to regulate substandard public film theatres other than the responsibility ofenforcing film classification requirements in public film theatres. There are so many public video shows that have sprouted up in the last two decades most of them with substandard structures and therefore violating theatre regulations under the Censorship Act.

In response, we launched theatre standards campaign in 2010. The campaign includes public education through sensitization meetings and radio programs, follow up visits and licensing of theatres meeting requisite standards, and law enforcement where those operating substandard theatres are arrested and prosecuted.So far, we have reached out to almost all the districts in the south and this year the program has been rolled out to districts in the Central Region through our Regional Office.

Preventive Measures Against Fatal Accidents

-In other countries, there are well recorded events where fatal accidents have occurred because of substandard facilities used for public entertainment or negligence of the facility managers or performers. The latest example being the night club fireworks accident in Brazil where lives have been lost. These cases are constant reminders that public entertainment should be guided by some form of regulation to check morally degrading content, physical specifications of facilities used, and guide the conduct of the performers in the interest of the patrons.

For now, all these regulations fall under the Censorship and control of entertainment Act(1968).

-It is therefore quite obvious that regulations for public entertainment(under Censorship Act), first drafted in 1968, are still relevant to regulate public entertainment. The physical specifications of theatresare prescribed by civil engineering experts.The same experts reviewed the theatre regulations during the law review exercise and this has been included as part the proposed Classification Bill. Inspections on theatre standards is done in conjunction with local assemblies.

Using theatre regulations, the Censorship Board has been coordinating with City Assemblies to sensitize owners of entertainment facilities on theatre regulations and matters of safety and welfare of patrons; and regulations affecting public performances. The response and collaboration has been encouraging.

Benchmark for Adult Sex Industries

-The current regulations for public entertainment offers a platform for the regulation of adult entertainments which are already popular in other countries. In countries where adult sex industries are legalised, these businesses operate under very strict regulations so that the rights of the conservative sections of the society are also respected.

Should Malawi chose to legalise adult entertainments, the starting point would be to look at the current regulations for public entertainment and its experiences as this would be an important stepping stone to regulate adult industries.

Regulation of Visiting Foreign Artists

- Using the current regulations for public entertainment, we also regulate visiting foreign artists and groups through public entertainment permits. We sincerely believe that visiting foreign artists should be subjected to some form of entertainment so that we check the content and appraise them of their obligations for the good of the patrons. It would be very irresponsible to allow foreign public entertainment groups without any clearance formalities and payment of corresponding permit fees.

6. What are the most common forms of offences committed by Malawi's entertainment sector?

Most public entertainment facilities used to compromise on the technical specifications for such facilities. There was lack of regular dialogue with this office. With a public entertainment section that is now fully manned, we are regularly speaking to the managers and there are notable improvements.

7. When do you come in, when it comes to culture and public entertainment? Do you have to be physically available all the time at public entertainment venues?

The issues about culture, censorship and public entertainment are as explained responses to Q1 and Q2. It is more about the Censorship Board being under the Department of Culture but the initial mandate that public entertainment be regulated under the Censorship and Control of Entertainment has remained unchanged.
As already said, the main tools to regulate public entertainment are the issuance of public entertainment permits and licences to public entertainment facilities. In the same framework, the act empowers officers to attend public entertainment in their official capacity and ascertain compliance with public regulations. We have also been carrying routine inspections to public entertainment facilities in liaison with city assemblies.

8. Now, talking about culture. We have, of late, seen cultural groups such as MulhakowaAlhomwe showcasing their culture by allowing girls to show their breasts in public. Doesn't this contravene your standards?

We are currently working on this and I will avoid any comments for now

9. Do you real think you can control these things, or the standards are just there on paper?

As with any other Government offices, we plan what we want to achieve every year and as a regulatory office one of our goals is that every year we should be scaling up our key outputs in form of licences issued, entertainment permits issued and pornographic films confiscated, and number of films classified. Most of the times we are able to beat our key targets very convincingly, and our performance, as measured by the set targets, is usually above average.

10. So far, what have been some of the achievements of the Censorship Board?

Censorship Reform Program

Government started working on the Censorship reform program some years back in response to the 2004 Constitution which guarantees right to information. The censorship law reform program has three phases: review of the censorship law, enactment of new legislation and establishment of a successor institution to Censorship Board. Censorship law review was carried out by the Law Commission and its report and recommendations were submitted to Government. Government is currently finalising the Classification of Films and Public Entertainments Bill for possible presentation to parliament. My office has been a key player in the coordination of this important exercise.

For some years, this office was challenged by lack of adequate staff to carry out its programs. We have carried out massive recruitment exercise, a program which started the last two years. All technical sections are now adequately staffed and the Lilongwe Regional Office is now functional. For now we are also working on possibilities of professional development of our staff through attachments to similar institutions abroad, study tours and in-house training programs. This is part of the preparatory work for the rollover to a successor institution guided by the proposed legislation.

Theatre standards campaign
As already said, we initiated the theatre standards campaign in 2010.The campaign includes public education through sensitization meetings and radio programs, follow up visits and licensing of theatres that have requisite standards, and law enforcement where those operating substandard theatres are arrested and prosecuted. So far, we have reached out to almost all the districts in the south and this year the program has been rolled out to districts in the Central Region through our Regional Office.
The impact and feedback has been overwhelming. Most operators of public film theatres are now familiar with theatre regulations including issues to do with film classification. Licensed public film theatres have more than doubled. Again,through this program, we have maintained regular contacts with public film theatres and therefore scaled up monitoring of pornographic films.

Additional technical programs
Other than the usual regulatory activities, we introduced two additional technical programs in our core activities some five years ago. Law enforcement program against pornography and public education. We realised that enforcement of regulations should be supported by proper public education as some offences are committed because of lack of appropriate information. The program on pornography was to have a formal and well coordinated response to proliferation of pornographic films including proper conclusion of court cases.
We have established that there are three levels of distribution for pornography. The public film video shows are the lowest level. Then we have some streets where its sold as the second level. Third and highest level are those involved in downloading, reproducing or importing the material. This third level is the most important link in the supply chain of pornographic films. We have been targeting key suppliers because we know if the problem is arrested at that level then the two lower levels in the supply chain will be starved.
From the experience gained in the last four years, we now have very good investigation strategies to curb the problem of pornography, as results of some prominent investigations can show. We also now have a team which is exceptionally competent to investigate on pornography as this trade s usually done underground. Some offenders that have been previously convicted of distributing pornography have actually volunteered to help us in busting those distributing pornography.

11. We hear that playwrights have to show you their scripts before staging their plays. How viable is this requirement? Do playwrights really follow this?

Most drama groups do comply with this requirement as those who can not comply would commit an offence under the Censorship Act and be liable to prosecution.

12. Lastly, how do you reach out to stakeholders, and sensitise them on censorship issues to avoid creating misunderstandings?

Other than law enforcement activities, we created a separate program on public education to reach out to stakeholders some three years back.This involves sensitization meetings, weekly radio program and promotional materials. Our immediate priority was to speak to operators of video shows. The feedback and experiences have been very encouraging. We are currently working on logistics to carry out similar meetings with film distributors.

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