Sunday, February 2, 2014

Malawi Censorship Board: Saving Malawians from Offensive Acts

...'Public entertainment can offend the audience’

Censorship has, since time immemorial, pitted the state against artists who argue that it is not the responsibility of the state to regulate morals while proponents of the same argue that censorship is a key determinant of what is acceptable and what is not in society. In this interview, RICHARD CHIROMBO talks to spokesperson for the Censorship Board, Chrissy Chiumia, on this controversial subject. Excerpts:

Is censorship ‘Malawian’? In other words, how old is 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 modeled 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.

Ok, how does the Censorship Board carry out its duties?

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. 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

From the look of things, it seems like we have maintained a firm grip on the old notions of censorship. Don’t we run the risk of getting stuck with a leaking boat somewhere in the raging sea of democracy and freedom of expression?

Some years back, Government embarked on the Censorship Reform Programme whose key components are: 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; 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; 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; to overhaul the operations of the Censorship Board so that its programmes and services are guided by best practices in the regulation of films and public entertainment.

So, where are we now with the law review process?

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.

I understand that one aspect of censorship deals with cultural standards in public entertainment- and you have Cultural Standards Officers responsible for Public Entertainment at the Board. Why hire people to standardize culture?

The post-naming system of cultural standards officers is more of an administrative matter and does not represent any change in the technical programmes of the 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, the Censorship Board was moved from Office of the President and Cabinet 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 Act.

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 Programme - had also just been concluded. The censorship law review report recommended new legislation and a successor institution to the Censorship Board, and it was in the best interest of these recommendations that the change 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 of cultural standards officers be maintained as 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.

Does the Board regulate morals and cultures?

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.

By the way, is censorship still relevant today?

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

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 (because) what you may perform at public entertainment may sometimes surely offend the audience, or even the larger public; a system to regulate substandard public film theatres (because) regulations for public entertainment have become very convenient to regulate substandard public film theatres other than the responsibility of enforcing film classification requirements in public film theatres; preventive measures against fatal accidents (as), 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. (Censorship is also the) benchmark for Adult Sex Industries. The current regulation for public entertainment offers a platform for the regulation of adult forms of entertainment which are already popular in other countries

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 entertainment is a separate issue altogether. Other than regulating content of the performances, regulation of entertainments goes beyond matters of Censorship.

What have been the main challenges faced by the Board?

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.

How about some cultures which encourage women to expose sensitive parts in public? Isn’t this a challenge?

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

I have never heard of achievements registered by the Board. Do you, really, win your battles?

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.

And, there is other censorship requirement that playwrights bring their scripts to you. Do people take it seriously?

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

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