17 July 2021, Columbia University

Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), a South African civil society organization concerned with media ethics, media quality and media freedom, lodged a complaint with the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA) against eNCA and eTV. MMA described the broadcast as a “clear example of disinformation pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic”, and defined “disinformation” as being “verifiably false or misleading information created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public” [para. 8 of complaint]. It referred to the 2017 Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and ‘Fake News’, Disinformation and Propaganda in noting the impact of disinformation on the exercise of freedom of expression, and highlighted that COVID-19 disinformation in South Africa had been criminalized in the regulations issued under the Disaster Management Act, 57 of 2002. MMA submitted that eNCA and eTV’s broadcast of “So what now?” was harmful because it “intentionally disseminated disinformation based on facts that were untrue”, “promoted unlawful conduct that was in violation of the regulations issued under the Disaster Management Act” and by “denying the existence of COVID-19 and claiming it to be a scam”. [para. 12 of complaint].

In its complaint MMA raised three grounds of complaint: that the broadcast was not based on facts that are true; that it violated the duty to present opposing points of view; and that the broadcast did not protect child viewers. MMA set out the false statements made by Icke: he had called COVID-19 a “pandemic hoax”; stated that there was a scam in the communication of information; claimed that the World Health Organization “was created by people like the Rockerfeller family to control global health policy from a central point”; said that the WHO Secretary-General was “an asset of Bill Gates, who owns the WHO”; and maintained that “there is no virus” and that there was no scientific evidence of the virus [para. 14 of complaint]. MMA submitted that denying the existence of COVID-19 was “harmful and dangerous” and viewers of the program could believe Icke’s assertions and fail to take the necessary health precautions. MMA stressed that “[i]n the midst of a public health crisis, it is particularly important that even commentary must be justified on true facts” [para. 18 of complaint].

MMA also noted that during the interview with Icke there was no alternative viewpoint provided and submitted that Cliff – as host of the program – had not provided sufficient counter positions in response to Icke’s position.

MMM argued that the Subscription Broadcast Code of Conduct requires that when there is significant material that is unsuitable for children that must be broadcast proportionately later into the watershed period and that the eNCA broadcast was only 30 minutes into that period and that it remains accessible on the eNCA website, which “poses a significant risk of children viewing the broadcast to their detriment” [para. 24 of complaint].

MMA described the broadcast as “reckless and irresponsible” and characterized eNCA and eTV has having “shown no concern for the harm that the broadcast has the potential to cause” [para. 25 of complaint], and referred to the South African Constitutional Court case of Khumalo v. Holomisa [2002] ZACC 12 which had emphasized that there was a duty on the media to be “scrupulous and reliable” in order to strengthen democracy [para. 20 of reply]. It requested the BCCSA issue an appropriate sanction, which it suggested could be an order to broadcast a correction or impose a fine of up to R80 000 (approximately US$6 000 in June 2021).

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