The Censorship Board has been in the limelight for its tough stance after refusing to grant an entertainment permit to South African controversial dancer Zodwa Wabantu.
There have been several international artists who have performed in the country, courtesy of different entertainment outfits but have never been denied the entertainment permit.
For the Zodwa Wabantu debacle which attracted varied opinions from people in the country, the dancer was not granted permit because allegedly performs without wearing underwear and in most cases, dresses provocatively.
The dancer was banned in Zimbabwe and was also deported from Zambia due to the nature of her performances.
But with all that said, Censorship Board has been in the forefront connecting with various players in the creative sector and through its operations, it regulates some of the works on the ground.
Deputy Director of Arts responsible for censorship Anganile Nthakomwa says Censorship Board, is a Division under the Department of Arts, in the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Wildlife, draws its mandate from the Censorship and Control of Entertainments Act which was enacted in 1968.
She said apart from the main Act, there are also Censorship rules known as subsidiary legislation for theatres and for general Censorship issues.
Nthakomwa said the mission of the Board is to protect public morality in the presentation of films and public entertainment, and in a way contribute to the preservation of the country’s public morals and cultural values.
“As Censorship Board, we also have technical programmes which include film classification services, regulation of public entertainment (for both performances and facilities), law enforcement against proliferation of pornographic films as well as research and public education,” she said.
On public entertainment regulation, Nthakomwa said the public entertainment section regulates performances and facilities where performances take place.
“The section enforces regulations for stage plays, musical performances and other artistic performances and displays, beauty pageants, fashion shows, festivals. The section also regulates theatres which include video shows and any other facility larger than video shows or any purpose built facility where public entertainment performances are held,” she said.
Nthakomwa said Censorship Board does also examine suitability of any public entertainment to the country’s socio-cultural values, ensure safety of patrons and protect their interests, protect minors from harmful or corruptive content and guard against morally inappropriate forms of public entertainment.
Surprisingly, Censorship Board has only made headlines in times when there are controversial issues, with the latest being that of Zodwa.
A lot has been said about the entertainment permit but what does it entail?
“It is not about Censorship Board being in controversial circumstances, a better term could be conflict. We mostly come in, that is by providing the required guidance and direction when foreign elements deemed to be in conflict with our culture come in,” Nthakomwa said.
She said Censorship Board has the discretion to exercise its authority and make a determination whether a permit should be issued or not as provided under the Censorship and Control of Entertainment Act.
“As per provisions of the Act, the Board may issue a permit without conditions; issue a permit subject to such terms and conditions as the Board may think fit, or withhold the issuance of the permit,” she said.
Some quarters have said Censorship Board acts on issues not on its own but rather through directives from authorities but Nthakomwa insists that the body works independently. She further opened up to say that when clients are not satisfied with their decision, they were free to use the provision in the law which gives them the right to appeal to higher authorities, in this case the Minister responsible.
Nthakomwa gave an example of the case of Zodwa Wabantu, where she said the organiser/promoter appealed to the Minister of Tourism, Culture and Wildlife who sustained the Censorship Board’s position not to issue a public entertainment permit for her to perform in Malawi.
Censorship Board issues an entertainment permit to organisers or promoters who engage foreign acts to come and perform in Malawi.
Nthakomwa said the entertainment permit is charged per performer.
“For now, we only target foreign performances as a way of check and balances so as to protect our identity (so as to promote foreign cultures that will not be in conflict with our culture) as a nation as well as safety (sanitation issues etc.) and standards for the would be patrons in terms of the spaces/facilities providing the platforms for the public entertainment acts to take place,” she said.
In the spirit of encouraging local organisers whose events only target local artists, Nthakomwa said they have not yet started issuing permits.
“Otherwise we act when we receive complaints from the general public in the event that the local acts do not conform to the context of Malawi’s cultural norms,” Nthakomwa said.
She gave examples of videos of Gule Wamkulu performing while naked which were all over social media recently where they acted accordingly.
“We had discussions with the Chewa Heritage Foundation (Chefo) who fortunately had already acted on the errant dancers and the responsible traditional leaders by putting strict measures to stop the practice,” Nthakomwa said.
But while Censorship Board operates using the entertainment permit, for example, to stop some performances in the creative industry, there have been concerns bordering on freedom of expression in a democratic world where some players feel freedom of creators was being infringed upon.
But where does Censorship Board draw its line on where their role begins and ends?
“The line is drawn when artistic freedom becomes irresponsible and brings unnecessary conflicts in the name of artistic freedom – which is not worth bringing up. For example, according to the Censorship Act, the following may limit any artistic expression: productions that promote child pornography, blasphemy, demean other cultures, or use court proceedings or what may compromise state security or anything that may put other aspects at risk,” Nthakomwa said.
She further said that most countries also have such limitations to artistic freedoms and gave an example of the recent screenings of The Lady of Heaven which have been pulled out from United Kingdom Cine Cinemas Chain “to ensure the safety of [their] staff and customers” due to the blasphemous nature of the film.
Nthakomwa maintained that they do not take the public or people unawares at times with their operations but they simply just apply the law.
“When the law is not clear or when our clients and stakeholders are not clear on our law they are encouraged to seek guidance from us. However, the law will be applied accordingly to those who deliberately choose not to comply,” she said.
Nthakomwa admitted that they have not done much on sensitising the public about “our laws and regulations”.
She said from their experience, there were so many artists, promoters and stakeholders who are not aware of what they do and what is expected of them.
“We have now developed a communication strategy which will need to be implemented once it goes through a vetting process and the required resources are identified,” Nthakomwa said.
Recently Musicians Union of Malawi (Mum) President Gloria Manong’a said there was need for government departments such as Censorship Board to do more in terms of sensitisation so as to make creatives aware of some of their operations to avoid being taken unawares on some laws and regulations.
There are various places in the country, particularly video showrooms, for example where pornographic materials are screened and yet there is little in terms of monitoring.
Nthakomwa said they do normal spot checks according to their work plan and also act on information they get from communities (mother groups, opinion leaders, parents etc.) or any other concerned citizens and that they have acted accordingly.
There is more work to be done by Censorship Board to regulate material that is deemed harmful but in this technological world, Nthakomwa admits that they still have a long way to go.
“We are mindful that we need to move with the times and ensure that our stakeholders access information pertaining to the Board in no time. Plans are already in place to have an automated system which is also one of our reform areas in the public reforms programme,” she said.