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Censorship Policy

Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 mandates the censorship of 'publications' in a number of media. Although the Act is administered in the Ministry of Justice, our Censorship Compliance Unit has enforcement responsibilities, and our Policy Group provides advice to the Minister.

More information:

Briefing to the Incoming Minister of Internal Affairs 713k. To read or print a pdf document you need to have the Adobe Acrobat Reader installed on your computer. You can download this program free from the Adobe site. For a hard copy version contact:

Sector Overview

Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 mandates the censorship of 'publications'. These include, but are not limited to: films, videos, books, magazines, photographs, sound recordings, billboards, T-shirts, DVDs, CD-Roms and other computer-based media.

Objects such as carvings or statues which do not carry some form of depiction or writing are not considered to be publications. Television and radio broadcasting are not included under the Act.

The Act seeks to maintain a balance between control of objectionable and restricted publications and individual freedom of choice. There is a tension between the concept that the availability of some types of material may be 'injurious to the public good', and section 14 of the
Bill of Rights Act 1990, which states that everyone 'has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.'

Although the Act itself is administered in the
Ministry of Justice, the Department of Internal Affairs is responsible for a range of censorship activities, the largest being enforcement.

Strategic Framework

The Act does not specify the outcome that is to be achieved through the Government's censorship interventions. However, the view that society may be harmed by the availability of certain types of material was enshrined in statute in New Zealand in the 1860s and has gone largely unchallenged since. By implication, the desired outcome is the reduction of potential harm to the public.

The Act operates on three levels to address the harms to the public good perceived to be associated with free access to potentially harmful material:

Ratings and Classifications

The current Act builds on previous legislation. All films and videos must be rated or classified before they are supplied to the public. Classifications are determined by the
Office of Film and Literature Classification.

Classifications are legally binding restrictions on the availability of publications, usually age-based. An example is the classification R18: Restricted to persons 18 years and over.

Ratings are issued by the industry-based labelling body, in accordance with Regulations made under the Act. Ratings are not legally binding and are intended for consumer information. An example is the rating M: Suitable for mature audiences 16 years and over.

Films and videos must carry a label conveying the rating or classification and a descriptive note as to content, where appropriate. Labels are based on the traffic light—green for general exhibition, yellow (or amber) where some caution should be exercised, and red for restricted titles.

Publications other than films and videos do not have to be rated, but may be submitted to the
Office of Film and Literature Classification of for examination and classification. Suppliers of unclassified publications commit an offence if the material supplied is in fact objectionable.

Since the Act came into force in October 1994, some 18,000 video titles have been classified or rated for supply in New Zealand.

The chart indicates the breakdown of ratings and classifications of these 18,000 videos. Despite the focus of the Act on objectionable and restricted material, 83% of the video titles on the market do not merit legal restriction.
censorship graph

Objectionable Publications

The Act defines 'objectionable' as follows: 'a publication is objectionable if it describes, depicts, expresses, or otherwise deals with matters such as sex, horror, crime, cruelty, or violence in such a manner that the availability of the publication is likely to be injurious to the public good'.

The Act sets out detailed criteria to help the
Office of Film and Literature Classification decide whether a publication is objectionable. It also lists six categories of material which are automatically objectionable:
  • the exploitation of children, or young persons, or both, for sexual purposes; or
  • the use of violence or coercion to compel any person to participate in, or submit to, sexual conduct; or
  • sexual conduct with or upon the body of a dead person; or
  • the use of urine or excrement in association with degrading or dehumanising conduct or sexual conduct; or
  • bestiality; or
  • acts of torture or the infliction of extreme violence or extreme cruelty.

Censorship Regulation

The bodies associated with censorship regulation are as follows:

Office of Film and Literature Classification

The Office, which is a Crown Entity, examines and classifies publications. It also examines and classifies advertising material associated with publications and may impose display restrictions on the advertising material and the publications themselves. It employs such staff as are necessary for it to carry out its functions and is funded as a non-departmental output class.

Film and Video Labelling Body Inc

This Body approved under the Act issues ratings (unrestricted) to films and videos and submits to the
Office of Film and Literature Classification films and videos of a nature that should be restricted. It issues all labels for films and videos. Labels for restricted titles are issued at the direction of the Classification Office.

Film and Literature Board of Review

This Statutory Body reviews decisions of the Classification Office. Reviews are re-examinations of the publications in question. The Board has the same powers of examination and classification as the Office, but its decisions supersede those of the Office. The Board is administered in the Policy Group.

Department of Internal Affairs

Inspectors of Publications employed by the Department ensure that:

  • publications are supplied in accordance with existing classifications
  • unclassified publications which should be classified are not supplied; and
  • supply of objectionable publications is investigated and prosecuted.

The Department also:

  • submits publications to the Classification Office;
  • services, and meets the costs of, the Film and Literature Board of Review;
  • monitors the Classification Office as agent of the Minister.

New Zealand Police

Every member of the Police is deemed to be an Inspector of Publications.

New Zealand Customs Service

Objectionable publications are prohibited imports and may be seized at the border.

Key Issues

Developments in communications technology are increasing the ease of access to information. This has a major impact on censorship, which aims to limit access to 'information' which may be harmful.

Diminishing Applicability of the Classification System

In the past, consumers have relied on ratings and classifications to advise them of the content of publications and to limit access by the young to unsuitable material. The classification system assumes that material can be easily examined. However, computer games, for example, may contain material that cannot be readily accessed for classification purposes. Amendments to the Act are under development but cannot solve the inability of classification bodies to access all the contents of such publications.

A significant component of the classification system is effective pre-release intervention. However, the Internet has provided a new means of obtaining and accessing publications. People can very easily order books, CDs and videos directly from overseas and it is now possible for films to be downloaded via the Internet, bypassing the classification system. While the amount of material obtained in these ways is modest as yet, if these trends continue, the rating and classification system will apply to an increasingly small segment of the market.

Blurred Regulatory Distinctions

The evolution of technology is blurring the distinctions between services that have traditionally been regulated in different ways and it is not clear which statute or what standards should apply. Two examples relevant to censorship are:
  • The difference between supplying films and broadcasting is becoming less clear, as satellite and cable broadcasters tailor content to individual viewers on demand.
  • The line between supplying film and print publications and broadcasting is becoming blurred because the Internet now has sufficient capacity to carry real-time video, which can be viewed in the same way as television can be. To date, 'supply' has largely been handled by a pre-release classification system while 'broadcasting' has been handled by a post-broadcast complaints system.

Increasing Challenges for Censorship Enforcement

In the past, access to publications could be largely controlled, as items could be seized at the border or from shops, mail order operations etc. Now many people have easy access from their homes to objectionable material available via the Internet.

Censorship enforcement activity currently concentrates largely on the distribution of objectionable material via the Internet, and the Department has had some notable prosecution successes to date, especially in relation to child pornography. Continuing technological advances are likely to make it increasingly difficult to maintain the present level of success, without increased, and possibly more intrusive, enforcement powers.

As a result, maintaining the balance between protecting the public good and preserving the freedoms in the Bill of Rights Act is likely to become an increasingly difficult issue.

Other Stakeholders

Ministry of Justice administers the Classification Act.
The Ministries of Justice and
Women's Affairs both have a policy interest in censorship issues.

Minister's Specific Responsibilities

With the concurrence of the Ministers of Women's Affairs and Justice, the Minister recommends the appointment of the Chief Censor and Deputy Chief Censor to the Office of Film and Literature Classification, to the Governor-General.

With the concurrence of the Ministers of Women's Affairs and Justice, the Minister recommends to the Governor-General the appointment of all nine members of the Film and Literature Board of Review, of whom one is appointed as President and one as Deputy.

The Minister approves an organisation as the labelling body under the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act. The Minister also appoints community representatives on the labelling body, on the recommendation of the Minister of Consumer Affairs, after that Minister has consulted the Minister of Women's Affairs.

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Last updated: 10/03/2004