In the age of digital disruptions, with all its possibilities and failures, it is important for us as Africans to protect the African Child, and work together to harmonise our approach to communication of the future.

The Film and Publication Board (FPB), and its African counterparts, similar industry regulators across the African continent, are seeking a collaborative approach to harmonise the regulation of creative content on the continent.

Heads of the agencies and policy makers deliberated on a framework approach towards “Harmonisation of Content Regulation in Africa Summit” at a think tank workshop held from 18 to 20 March 2019 in Sandton, South Africa. The event, hosted by the FPB, also had in attendance industry regulators and stakeholders from Kenya, Malawi, Swaziland and Lesotho.

The Chairperson of the FPB, Ms Thoko Mpumlwana, stated that whilst we have witnessed shifts in other parts of the world in which some nations are withdrawing from multilateralism, it was encouraging to see a movement in Africa towards realising the dream of Kwame Nkrumah – towards African Unity.

“Your presence here today bears testimony to this African Unity which we refer to as ‘Ubuntu’. Without a doubt this inaugural meeting was a revolution for our industry,” said Mpumlwana.

According to Kristalina Georgieva, CEO of the World Bank, in 2016, the digital economy was worth $11.5 trillion and with a growing digital economy, the African economy can take advantage of digital markets by accelerating investment in the digital economy. According to a report in the Philadelphia Tribune, of the 25 least connected countries in the world, 20 are in Africa. Only 22% of homes have access to the internet, while 24% of people use it. Too few citizens have digital IDs or mobile wallets — locking them out of access to critical services and e-commerce.

Even though reach is still limited, there has been profound innovation in e-commerce businesses that meet the unique needs of people on the continent.

Applications like mobile banking service M-PESA has revolutionalised the banking sector for many of us Africans making transactional banking immediate. So many and diverse are the benefits of this new technology. But while we enjoy these benefits South African caregivers should be alive to the fact that these developments have been disruptive. For our purposes as media content regulators, this is especially so with respect to patterns in the production, distribution and consumption of entertainment and information media. Anyone can make a film; and we know of quite a few full feature films created with a mere mobile phone. But the other side of the coin when it comes to democratisation of information, production and digital distribution is the ease with which evil and hate can spread. The most recent of which is the Christchurch mosque shootings in which a gunman killed 50 people and wounded dozens.

The gruesome filming of the New Zealand mosque massacre is an example of how extremists abuse online platforms if left unregulated and social media sites, including Facebook, are facing backlash after having failed to remove the live stream of the attack.

“We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and what is said is not the responsibility of the place where they are published,” said Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern. “They are the publisher, not just the postman. There cannot be a case of all profit and no responsibility. It is unacceptable to treat the internet as an ungoverned space”.

Viewers and consumers were immersed in this video and according to reports, Facebook’s deputy general counsel, Chris Sonderby, said that none of the approximately 200 who watched the live video flagged it to moderators. And the first user report was filed 12 minutes after the broadcast ended.

The number of young people subscribing to Facebook as well as various other digital media platforms accessed this disturbing content, leaving our children vulnerable and exposed to such deeply harmful content.

This occasioned the think tank to raise the imperative that it is not just important for us as Africans to protect the African Child, but that it was a global imperative to work together and harmonise our approaches.

Mr Adedayo Thomas, executive director of the Nigeria Film And Video Censor Board, who led the Nigerian delegation to the summit, made a presentation on “Harmonisation of Content Regulation in Africa: A Case for The Movie Industry.” He identified harmonised capacity building programmes across Africa, proper management of content ‘travelability ‘, a well-defined censorship and classification and cyber safety as factors that needed adequate attention in movie content harmonisation.

Citizens can literally get around network sovereignty and any restrictions that governments may place on access to the internet. What then the role of ICT regulators? We speak of values, cultural and social norms, often at a country level. However, our value systems are not homogenous, there are some differences in emphasis on some cultural norms and religious beliefs as one travels from country to country. At the same time though, we can all agree – there are a lot of values that we share as Africans. The right to human dignity for example, and the obligation to our children, to protect them from harm.

According to Thomas, although African countries have individual legislative frameworks that govern the way they regulate content, there is a need to form a common front because of diverse cultures and values. He noted that a harmonised capacity building programme across Africa was ‘imperative as a gateway and point of access to information. One of such capacity building programmes is a good focus on script writing in order to stimulate and advance skills development to meet the current needs of the film industry. In storytelling, especially, our own story should instigate action for economic development, and if a certain level of harmony is achieved at this level, production will follow suit.

Content regulators across the continent are being challenged to embrace a harmonised regulatory framework. In essence, a harmonised regulatory framework on content regulation is the bedrock on which every other issue will stand. The meeting urged African content developers to give national interest and security, human right and dignity and children’s safety utmost consideration in creating their works.

Dr Maria Motebang, acting chief executive officer of the FPB, said that countries can no longer operate in isolation in content regulation because of the ‘travelability’ of content over the internet. She urged that regulators discuss and share best practices to assess the extent to which African countries can harmonise the manner in which content is classified.

Ms Vuyokazi Sigodi a millennial who attended the think tank, stated that a number of gaps have been identified in the digital space pertaining to film and content travelability. We have created a progressive space as various countries to harmonise and reach agreement on shared beliefs. All that is left is to work through our socio-cultural differences and that everything we have discussed becomes country specific simultaneously able to unify the continent.

According to the organisers of the summit, it is expected that at the end of the event, stakeholders, will among other things, develop a blueprint or roadmap on harmonisation of content classification in Africa. It is also expected that a steering committee will be established and drive the implementation of this roadmap, with members comprising a representative from each African country.