Legislating against Social Media racism

There exist on the statute book various important pieces of legislation aimed, as a whole or in part, at preventing incitement to hatred on the basis of race, ethnicity, creed or other such grounds. One of these is the Film and Publications Act (FPA) of 1996, a substantial section of which deals with cases where the content of a particular film or publication is deemed to be unacceptable. In terms of the Act, a publication/film is to be classified as a “refused classification” if it contains, inter alia, “the advocacy of hatred based on any identifiable group characteristic and that constitutes incitement to cause harm”.     

Much has changed in the twenty years since the passage of the original Act. Primarily, we have seen what has been nothing short of a revolution in human communications through the advent of the Internet, a phenomenon still in its infancy back in 1996. Initially, it was a question of disseminating information and opinions via individual websites, which anyone prepared to make the effort could set up and which accordingly mushroomed at a phenomenal rate. What really transformed the playing field, however, was the explosion of the Social Media through the introduction of Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

It is through these vehicles that the greater proportion of racist and bigoted sentiments is propagated today. In recognition of these new realities, a Bill to amend the FPA has been promulgated and an invitation issued to civil society and the public at large to comment on it. The Board, as it has done on various occasions in the past regarding legislation of this nature, last week made a detailed submission to the Portfolio Committee on Communications. Amongst other things, we emphasized the need for proper procedures to be in place to ensure that cases of hate speech, whether via the Internet or any other medium, can be effectively followed through by the relevant regulatory bodies and/or law enforcement agencies. At a later stage, we intend also making an oral submission at the public hearings in Parliament.   

The consistent stance of the Board has been one of zero tolerance of antisemitism or racism in any form. We recognise and support the right to freedom of expression, but insist that this right does not extend to propagating hate speech. Much of our work now involves confronting antisemitism in the social media, some of it emanating from individuals holding political office. Interestingly, the Labour Party in the UK is also currently wrestling with problems of antisemitic comments posted by some of its own members in recent months. We see from this how social media abuse is a problem that even the most advanced democracies are having to deal with.       

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