We’re all Connected…. why harmonising content regulation in Africa is necessary

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By Oupa Makhalemele

 

 

The Covid-19 pandemic has reminded all who live on Planet Earth of just how connected the world is. In a matter of months everyone in the world suddenly knew of the Chinese City of Wuhan. A virus that is suspected to have started in this big, largely hitherto unknown city, spread so fast across the globe that it touched the lives of millions at an astounding speed.

 

Another arena where locally made things spread fast across the globe is in the media and entertainment space. Names that were either obscure or simply didn’t exist ten years ago have quickly become household names across the globe: Netflix, Showmax, Amazon Prime and a new player Apple TV+ are some of the names jostling for space in the Over the Top (OTT) entertainment media market in Africa. According to the California-based BusinessWire: the global OTT services market size is expected to grow to just under $180 billion by 2025.

 

This is part of the new world opened up by changes in the Internet and Communications Technologies (ICTs). Patterns in the production, distribution and consumption of entertainment media have changed drastically. This is important as media is considered a very powerful tool for disseminating news and propagating ideas. We have witnessed its use in causing confusion and the spread of outright lies through the fakenews and deepfakes machinery. For these and many other reasons, governments across the world have long considered ways to regulate media content. For this reason, respective countries have over the years developed guidelines and regulations, that have inevitably taken on the political colour (norms and values) dominant in those communities.

 

There has been a collaborative approach to this work, as evidenced by the PEGI arrangement in Europe. PEGI, short for Pan-European Game Information, was launched in 2003 and is a 

video game rating system used in more than 35 European countries to help European consumers make informed decisions when purchasing video games or apps through the use of age recommendations and content descriptions. It is a system very similar to those used by many countries for regulating entertainment media content. PEGI uses the single system to cover different countries in the region, based on the assumption that the value systems in these different countries are common enough for a common system.

 

Over the past five years or so the idea of harmonising media content regulation in Africa has been gaining momentum. Two important milestones mark this trajectory clearly. Firstly, in 2015 the Film and Publication Board of South Africa organised and hosted an international conference in Johannesburg that focused on classification and child protection in Africa. The title of this conference nuanced the continental ambitions of those involved: “African Media Content Classification and Online Child Protection Conference.” It is within this context that the FPB highlighted only two aspects of media content regulation, namely content classification (which comes in the form of age ratings and consumer advisories such as 16SV), and child protection. Child protection is etched in the Films and Publications Act of South Africa and is a global concern for all content regulators across the continent.

 

The second milestone, an event held in Johannesburg in March 2019, was the summit of media content regulators from various African countries, both in the SADC region and other regions, including Nigeria and Kenya.

 

Essentially these gatherings agreed on three central areas:

  • The need to regulate media content;
  • The strategic importance of pooling resources to regulate media content in the context of new patterns of media production, distribution and consumption; and
  • Finding synergies to align media content regulation while respecting the diverse cultural, religious, regional and legislative milieu across the continent.

 

Since then the goal of harmonising media content regulation in Africa has gained momentum. In June 2019 South Africa was privileged to be assigned the leadership role in these important processes. This was exemplified by the election of South Africa’s media content regulator, the Film and Publication Board, to the position of the Chairpersonship of the Steering Committee set up to lead the way on the path to a harmonised media content regulation system.

 

The Steering Committee resolved that more regulators in the continent be canvassed for the cause, and that international film festivals hosted in Africa will be used as a platform to advocate for harmonization. Since then the Steering Committee has met in Nigeria and other festivals have been attended in Tanzania and Tunisia, where the work of spreading and cementing support for the objectives of Harmonisation has continued in earnest.

 

 

What is media content regulation?

 

Media content regulation broadly defined is a role often played by a state entity designed for this purpose. It is premised on the understanding that the public ought to be made aware of classifiable elements contained in the media in the market for public consumption. This includes films, video games and in some countries, some publications.

 

This information comes in the form of age ratings and advisories about the elements for which the ratings were arrived at. Often these entities derive their mandate from legislative promulgation. Their aims and objectives can broadly be said to be regulating media content and its distribution to facilitate a legal framework that allows the film industry to operate within clearly defined guidelines.

 

Beyond assigning age ratings for content, regulators set rules and regulations by which the industry players are governed. These include legitimating their business by granting them licenses or permits to operate within said jurisdiction; setting up regulations for such 

registration, the premises where media content is distributed and exhibited, and where appropriate, the physical shape, look and feel where this is done.

 

The important part of media content regulation is the continuous engagement with different stakeholders. In the case of South Africa this includes filmmakers or filmmaker associations; organisations supporting the industry; Internet Service Providers and their associations; Law Enforcement Agencies and the members of the public, comprising school children, teachers, parents and consumers of media content. This is important because public education about the need to shield underage children from accessing unsuitable media content is gravely needed. In Nigeria the media content regulation authority also engages with the various guilds in the film industry, including church ministers.

 

Building blocks to developing a framework for harmonising

 

According to Abongile Mashele, the Acting CEO of South Africa’s Film and Publication Board, the first major task given to the Steering Committee was the construction of a matrix of content regulation in the continent. This involved conducting desktop research, as well as making direct enquiries with various African media content regulators. The matrix assessed the following key elements:

  • Legislation used to establish the regulator
  • Aims and objectives
  • Other pieces of legislation relevant to the regulator’s work
  • The list of the regulator’s important stakeholders
  • Child protection (especially regarding child sexual abuse material – or CSAM)
  • Classification ratings in different countries

 

At this stage the matrix comprises data gathered about the various countries’ media regulatory regimes. It is a work in progress and reflects only those countries where data was 

available. More countries will be added gradually to the matrix as information becomes available and is verified.

 

Interestingly, there are various areas of commonality across the various countries studied. Although different countries use different symbols in their consumer advisory and age ratings, the meaning behind these symbols are shared commonly across the various regulatory regimes. For example, a film suitable for all ages carries advisory symbol “A” (all ages) in Malawi and South Africa, while in Nigeria the symbol used for the same is “G” (for general viewing, no restrictions). The classifiable elements are also similar, expressing similar concerns or cultural norms and values held in the different countries. These include sex, nudity and violence among others. Additional factors are considered in deciding on a rating, including for example the frequency or intensity of those elements in a film, video game or publication.

 

The preciseness of these elements is not universal though, with some countries adding a category such as ‘obscene’, whose meaning is not clearly defined. Overall, however, there are enough similarities in the age ratings assigned to film content in different countries on the continent to prompt the Steering Committee to urge for the consideration of adopting a singular framework for media content regulation.

 

Viewed in this light, the building blocks for a uniform media content regulation seem to be firmly in place.

 

The role of entertainment media in Africa – economic and social benefits

 

Entertainment media in sub-Saharan Africa is steadily climbing the ranks as a driver of growth, as demonstrated in Nigeria, where the local film industry is the country’s second largest employer. In 2009 UNESCO reported that Nollywood (Nigerian cinema’s moniker playing off the Bollywood (Indian) which in turn played off the USA’s Hollywood brand) had overtaken Hollywood to become the world’s second largest film industry after Bollywood. This growth 

has since been accelerated in large part by developments in Internet and Communication Technologies (ICTs), which enables access to technology for high quality production, storing and distribution capabilities within and outside national boundaries.  The three countries that have been leading in this trend are Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa – the three nodes of development in the region in other sectors generally.

 

Kenya has identified film production as a catalyst for its own economic growth, leveraging its beautiful flora and fauna as well as its world-famous safari to lure film producers to the country.

 

South Africa meanwhile has for some time taken advantage of the favorable rand-to-dollar exchange rates to draw big Hollywood productions to its shores, creating jobs for the local film industry, generating revenue for the municipalities involved as well as showcasing the country’s natural beauty thus increasing interest for international tourism.

 

Another interesting case study is Tunisia, a North Saharan country, whose orientation is firmly African. In Tunisia, film is framed as a window to the North African experiences, where various issues are highlighted, touching on identity and reflecting the dynamics of cultures from the African (particularly the Berber), Arabic and even European influences. What is interesting is how firmly Tunisian filmmakers situate themselves in Africa.

 

There is no doubt that much more benefits are to come from film in Africa, with many players standing to benefit exponentially from this boon.

 

Why harmonise media content regulation?

 

While these are welcome developments, there are some concerns raised by regulatory authorities. For instance:

 

  • To what extent should each country defend its sovereignty against foreign industry players where it comes to cultural representation where the two clash?
  • How can local film makers be given the opportunity to develop and grow their share in the film market, competing with well-resourced, well-marketed international production houses; and
  • The important matter of Child Protection and the exposure of underage children to unsuitable and harmful content, give the sheer size and scope of online content volumes.

 

Other than the above, many societies in the continent are cognizant of social and political fault-lines that require political leadership to manage. Examples include material that contain identities such as sexuality, ethnicity, religion or race among others. As such, countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, Malawi and Tunisia have put in place clear prescripts to mediate the propagation of such expressions in their regulatory frameworks.

 

The legislative frameworks governing media in these countries reflect an appreciation of the central role media plays in the propagation of ideas, dissemination of information, education and economic development amongst others. Some of these governments have acknowledged the importance of media in nurturing good citizenship and national cohesion (for example South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya express this imperative in their media regulatory frameworks). Another prominent feature in these frameworks is the protection of children from abuse in the media. This includes both the use of children in the production of child sexual abuse materials and the exposure of children thereto.

 

Critically in this age of ‘travelability’ of content, spurred on by streaming and online distribution channels, regulators on the continent, while welcoming the potential for reaching larger markets for their local productions, are concerned about the potential overflooding of content that might undermine the socio-political programmes being pursued in the respective regional countries.

It is early days in the pursuit of a harmonized content classification matrix in the region, and the advent of the COVID19 pandemic has surely applied a break on the momentum built in this path. But as scientists and our brave health-workers across the region fight back against the devastation of this virus, our hopes continue to flicker for a future where our region claims a stake of the entertainment media pie, and our regulators better have a system in place to help players take advantage of the benefits while also protecting society and the vulnerable from the negative side of the same boon.

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