Frequently Asked Questions
Q: I have been offended by a broadcast. How may I lodge a complaint?
A: See “Criteria for a complaint” on this website for information regarding the complaint process.
Q: What is the BCCSA and how can it help me?
A: The Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA) is an independent, domestic, administrative tribunal in the field of broadcasting (both radio and television). The Commission comprises 12 part-time members: a Chairperson plus 11 commissioners. Three full-time staff are employed in the Johannesburg office: a registrar, a secretary and a complaints manager. For further information, see “Home” on this website, where the relationship of the BCCSA with the National Association of Broadcasters (NABSA) is also explained.
Q: How does the BCCSA adjudicate complaints against broadcasters?
A: Each complaint lodged with the BCCSA is evaluated by the registrar. A decision is then made as to whether the complaint is prima facie proof of a contravention of the Code of Conduct; in other words, would the complaint be upheld by a Tribunal of the BCCSA? If the answer is no, the registrar responds to the complainant, explaining why the complaint has not been accepted. In cases where the registrar accepts a complaint, it may be subjected to either of two processes. It may be referred to a commissioner who writes an adjudication after considering the material complained about as well as written arguments submitted by the complainant and the broadcaster (respondent). In the case of more serious complaints, the matter is referred to a tribunal hearing. A Tribunal comprises either three or five commissioners: they listen to or view the material complained about, then hear evidence and arguments by the complainant(s) and the broadcaster, or their legal representatives. Thereafter, the commissioners deliberate and issue a written judgment; in certain cases a dissenting judgment may also be submitted. All adjudications and judgments are then published on the website.
Q: What rules are applied in deciding on a complaint?
A: The BCCSA applies either of two codes. In the case of complaints against subscription broadcasters, the Code of Conduct for Subscription Broadcasting Service Licensees is applied. In all other complaints the Free-to-Air Code of Conduct for Broadcasting Service Licensees is applied. The BCCSA is subject to the Constitution of South Africa, in particular section 16, which protects the right to freedom of expression in section 16. However, because the airwaves are public property and may only be utilised by broadcasters under licence from the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), broadcasters may not abuse this right by broadcasting material that conflicts with the Code. There are therefore limitations to this right of the broadcasters.
Q: Can a harmful advertisement be removed?
A: The BCCSA has no jurisdiction over advertisements, and complaints should be lodged with the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa (ASASA) (see www.asasa.org.za). However, the BCCSA does deal with promotional material (promos) for broadcasts such as films. Promos broadcast during family time may not contain adult material such as nudity or violence that may be harmful to children. Promos containing clear scenes of harmful material, broadcast at a time when a large number of children is in the audience, are likely to be in contravention of the Code.
Q: Can the BCCSA prevent the broadcast of scenes of violence against women and children?
A: A basic rule applied by the BCCSA is that all material should be judged in context. In a bona fide drama, for instance, an assault scene may considered to be an integral aspect of development of the plot; such a scene is judged differently from a scene that is merely gratuitous, contributing nothing to the storyline. Such scenes would usually not form part of a programme broadcast before 20:00, and if they do an age advisory is required.
The BCCSA does not censor material, and it is not empowered to order broadcasters to remove programmes from the air. It can only react to complaints about the content of a programme that has been broadcast. Where a programme constitutes a contravention of one of the Codes, a sanction may be imposed.
Q: How can I protect my children from viewing upsetting and harmful material?
A: The BCCSA codes have built-in protection for children. All TV broadcasters are required to adhere to the “watershed” rule, which permits the broadcast of adult material during times when children are unlikely to form part of the audience: for free-to-air broadcasters this is from 21h00 to 5h00, and for subscription broadcasters from 20h00 to 5h00 (subscription broadcasters are given leeway because parental/caregiver control can be exercised through decoders or private pin numbers).
In terms of the codes of conduct, broadcasters are obliged to inform viewers of the nature of the programmes via classification: parental guidance required (PG) with an age restriction (10 or 13); a general age restriction of 16 or 18 years. Warnings as to content are indicated by means of symbols: nudity (N), sex (S), violence (V) and coarse language (L). Such information must be displayed onscreen before the programme concerned commences and must also be published in the electronic programming guide (EPG). Broadcasters may use classification symbols issued by the Film and Publication Board.
Broadcasters are permitted to broadcast material with a 16 age restriction before the watershed, provided that adequate advisories are published on-screen and on the EPG regarding such material. However material with an 18 restriction may not be broadcast before 20:00.
Q: Can the BCCSA order a broadcaster not to screen material that has violent scenes?
A: Clause 6 of the Free-to-Air Code prohibits the broadcast of material that is harmful or disturbing to children in programmes that are likely to have a large number of children in the audience. Broadcasters are required to exercise caution in screening programmes that contain violence at times when children may be watching. Parents and caregivers should use the parental control mechanism. The Code for subscription broadcasters instructs broadcasters to inform viewers of the use of the parental control mechanism, and puts the onus on them to provide warnings regarding programme content, e.g. violent scenes.
The BCCSA cannot order a broadcaster not to show certain content as this would amount to censorship, which is in conflict with the Constitutional protection of freedom of expression.
Q: How can children be protected from hearing embarrassing sexually suggestive jokes and seeing nudity on television screens?
A: The BCCSA receives many complaints relating to the content of certain “breakfast show” and “afternoon drive” radio programmes. Some presenters push the limits of what is regarded as acceptable. Even though their target audience is not children, these presenters should however be aware that large numbers of children are likely to form part of their audience as they are transported to and from school by parents or caregivers.
Ultimately it is the duty of parents and caregivers to monitor programme content and switch off the radio or tune in to another station when there are children in the vehicle.
The BCCSA does not have the authority to interfere with the broadcaster’s staff. It is up to the broadcaster to decide on appropriate disciplinary action in cases where presenters are found to have transgressed the Code.
Q: Is pornographic material permitted on South African television?
A: While pornography is not defined in either of the Codes, both of them do however prohibit the broadcast of child pornography, bestiality (sexual intercourse with an animal) and explicit sexual scenes. However this prohibition does not apply to bona fide scientific, documentary, dramatic or artistic material. An audience advisory must be screened, and such material may only be broadcast after the watershed. Context is an important consideration in evaluating such scenes, which must be judged on their own merits.
The BCCSA may not prescribe to broadcasters what programmes they should air, or what the programme content should be. The BCCSA may not interfere with a broadcaster’s freedom of expression. Viewers have a choice as to programmes they wish to view.
The BCCSA does not have the authority to classify films. This is the task of the Film and Publication Board (FPB). The broadcasters may adhere to the FPB classification or impose their own classification.
Q: Are one-sided, biased programmes allowed to be aired?
A: When controversial issues of public importance are discussed, both Codes require that the broadcaster should make a reasonable effort to present opposing points of view. Issues should be presented in a balanced way, allowing the audience to make up its own mind. In discussions where there is no opposing viewpoint, the presenter should provide balance by asking critical questions.
Broadcasters have their own disciplinary codes and it is their duty to take the necessary steps in cases where presenters contravene the Broadcasting Code.
Q: What is hate speech, and what is the penalty for using it?
A: Hate speech is defined as any utterance that advocates hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and which constitutes incitement to cause harm. This echoes section 16 (2) of the Constitution of South Africa. Both Codes outlaw hate speech, which, firstly, encourages ill will, and secondly stirs up or urges others to act in a manner that is likely to cause harm to others simply because of their race, ethnicity, gender or religion.
Mere offence is not sufficient cause for a finding of hate speech.
Q: Are people allowed to insult others, and what is the penalty for impairing a person’s dignity?
A: Both Codes protect the right to a person’s dignity, privacy and reputation. But this protection is not absolute. Claims to dignity and privacy may be overridden by legitimate public interest – which is not the same as mere interest in or curiosity about people’s lives. High-profile people enjoy less protection from the media than private individuals. Since deceased persons cannot claim a right to dignity, complaints on their behalf are not considered by the BCCSA. Furthermore, a complainant is not permitted to complain on behalf of another person. This is because dignity and privacy are personal and subjective, and tolerance varies from one individual to another.
Q: Is fake news or biased news allowed?
A: Both Codes require that news broadcasts should be truthful, accurate and fair. Broadcasters should ensure that audiences are properly informed about important events, whether national or international. The BCCSA cannot interfere with the editorial autonomy of broadcasters, though it can penalise broadcasters for misrepresenting or distorting material by leaving out important facts.
Q: What can the BCCSA do to ensure that a broadcaster does not make the same mistake again?
A: When a broadcaster is found to have contravened the Code of Conduct, a Tribunal or adjudicator may impose a sanction. A sanction takes different forms, for example, a reprimand; an order to broadcast a correction or a summary of the finding against the broadcaster; or a fine of a maximum of R80 000. Fines are paid into a special account of the BCCSA.
Q: What can a broadcaster do if they disagree that they have contravened the Code of Conduct?
A: A broadcaster may appeal against the findings of an adjudicator or a Tribunal. In the case of an appeal against an adjudication, the broadcaster can appeal to a Tribunal. The Chairperson must however consider whether there are adequate grounds for an appeal; if not, the application to appeal is rejected. In the case of an appeal against a Tribunal, the broadcaster may apply to appeal to the Appeal Tribunal of the BCCSA; this consists of three or five commissioners who did not sit on the first Tribunal. If the Chairperson turns down the application to appeal, the broadcaster may then apply for an appeal to a Deputy Chair. If the Deputy Chair believes that there are good grounds for an appeal, the appeal will be heard. If a broadcaster’s appeal is not upheld, the broadcaster must comply with the order of the Tribunal or of the Appeal Tribunal, as the case may be. Although in most cases it is the broadcaster who appeals a Tribunal decision, a complainant may also appeal, for example against a sanction that is considered to be too light.