Johannesburg - The Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) has warned broadcasters to tread carefully when dealing with officials of ruling parties before the May 7 elections.

In its regulations on party election broadcasts, political advertisements, the equitable treatment of political parties by broadcasting service licensees and related matters, Icasa warns broadcasters to recognise that government officials are in a position to use their incumbency to advance their electoral prospects.

The ANC and the DA are the only parties in power going into the May 7 national and provincial polls.

Icasa’s regulations came into effect on February 17, when they were published in the government gazette.

“During the election period, broadcasting service licensees should regard with particular caution any statement or action by an official of an incumbent party,” read the regulations.

According to Icasa, broadcasters – including the SABC, eNCA, ANN7 and radio stations – must ensure that, during the election period, they do not afford the policies of the incumbent parties greater legitimacy than they would if the party was not in government.

Broadcasters face fines of up to R1 million should they fail to comply with Icasa’s regulations in the run-up to the elections.

The regulations relate to electioneering messages to be only broadcast during the election period and no later than 48 hours before voting starts.

Icasa also wants political parties to be treated equitably.

Broadcasters “must afford reasonable opportunities for discussion of conflicting views and must treat all political parties equitably”.

It admits that the equitability is unlikely to be achieved in one programme but in a series of programmes.

“In the event of any criticism against a political party without the party being afforded an opportunity to respond, the broadcaster will be obliged to afford the party a reasonable opportunity to respond,” read Icasa’s regulations.

In their submissions on the regulations, the Economic Freedom Fighters, Save Our SABC and Media Monitoring Africa warned against the ANC interfering in SABC news in an attempt to have political developments detrimental to them not reported.

They have suggested that Icasa investigate allegations that the ANC was interfering in SABC news, to ensure fair reporting of elections and set up extra regulatory measures.

Icasa’s warning to broadcasters comes in a week in which Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s office confirmed it was investigating the DA’s claims that Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini used state employees for electioneering after the party briefly wrested control of the Tlokwe municipality from the ANC, of which Dlamini is a national executive committee member.

The ANC eventually won back the municipality in December.

In October last year, Dlamini revealed that 150 staff members – including 63 social workers, 61 social auxiliary workers, 16 community development practitioners and 10 community development workers – profiled 11 wards between July and September last year, assisting residents in over 12 000 households with housing needs, social grants, social relief of distress applications and social work interventions.

Madonsela’s spokesman Oupa Segalwe said the investigation was taking time to conclude mainly because of the delays on the department’s part in furnishing the public protector with the necessary information.

“The public protector wrote to the minister several times since October 2013. The minister’s response was only received last week,” Segalwe said.

He said Madonsela was still studying the document and a meeting between her and the minister was being arranged.

Gauteng premier Nomvula Mokonyane also summoned her government staff to accompany her during her visit to townships around the province during the final voter registration weekend last month.

Icasa chairman Dr Stephen Mncube said the authority’s understanding of equitable treatment was that it related to allocation of broadcasting time slots and fair representation of political parties in news and current affairs.

“The most important aspect of these regulations during elections is finding the right balance between the respect for editorial independence and the need for rules to guarantee that media coverage is balanced.”

In 2008, the DA complained to Icasa about George community radio station Eden FM after it broadcast a political advertisement later than 48 hours before the start of voting in a by-election.

Eden FM admitted to the charge and offered to broadcast an apology during two news bulletins.

Icasa gave Eden FM a suspended R5 000 fine.

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Sunday Indepedent