El cartel de los sapos is a Spanish-language telenovela (soap opera) produced in Colombia and broadcast in Canada on the specialty service TLN en Español. The story centres on the lives of members of a drug cartel, including one black man named Santilla. His friends and fellow cartel members consistently refer to him as “el negro”. In the English subtitles, “el negro” is translated to “Nigger”.
On April 16, 2012, the CBSC received a complaint from a viewer who objected to that translation. The viewer pointed out that the term “el negro” is more accurately translated into English as “black man” and that the derogatory and offensive term “nigger” should not be used. TLN en Español wrote back to the complainant on June 25 explaining that the subtitling is done in Colombia, not in North America and that, in the context of the program, the term is used in a colloquial way to acknowledge one specific character, not to make derogatory remarks about an entire group. The complainant was not satisfied with that response; he filed a Ruling Request on July 11 suggesting that the word “nigger” is unacceptable in North America and the station should refuse to air the program if it contains that word in its subtitles. (The full text of all correspondence can be found in the Appendix.)
The National Specialty Services Panel examined the complaint under the following provisions of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Equitable Portrayal Code:
Clause 9 – Language & Terminology
Broadcasters shall be sensitive to, and avoid, the usage of derogatory or inappropriate language or terminology in references to individuals or groups based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or physical or mental disability.
b) It is understood that language and terminology evolve over time. Some language and terminology may be inappropriate when used with respect to identifiable groups on the basis of their race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or physical or mental disability. Broadcasters shall remain vigilant with respect to the evolving appropriateness or inappropriateness of particular words and phrases, keeping in mind prevailing community standards.
Clause 10 – Contextual Considerations
Broadcasts may fairly include material that would otherwise appear to breach one of the foregoing provisions in the following contextual circumstances:
The Panel Adjudicators read all of the correspondence and viewed the episode of the program identified by the complainant in his initial correspondence. Three members of the Panel conclude that the broadcast breached Clause 9 and three members conclude that it did not.
The members of the Panel all agree that the choice of the Spanish term “el negro” to refer to Santilla, who is a Black character, does not denote any intention to demean the black race. It is rather more the case of a nickname used affectionately in this instance. However, some members of the Panel are of the view that the English term “nigger” given as the English translation in the subtitles is unacceptable. Indeed, three of the Adjudicators feel that in North America, the word “nigger” is unacceptable on the air regardless of the context, including in subtitles. 1
The three other Adjudicators prefer to take into account the context in which the word is used, namely that the translator’s choice is not likely the most fitting, but that the context clearly shows that it has no pejorative connotation 2 . There is never a question of demeaning the character due to his race and the word is never used, within the context of the program, to hurt anyone. These three Panel members conclude that if the use of the term is not derogatory in the original language, neither is its translation in the subtitles; in other words, the accessory follows the principal. They do note, however, that the translator should have chosen a more apt term.
The Panel members are evenly split with three concluding that Clause 9 of the CAB Equitable Portrayal Code has been breached, and three concluding there has been no violation given the context. Therefore, the broadcaster is not deemed to have breached the provisions of the Code. 3
That said, the Panel reminds the specialty television service TLN en Español that it is entirely responsible for the content it airs, and that it is required to ensure the quality of both the audio component and the subtitles.
TLN en Español provided the CBSC with a screener copy rather than a logger copy of program as broadcast. In this case, the Panel members did not find the broadcaster to be in violation of its membership requirements because TLN en Español had just joined the CBSC at the time of this complaint and therefore was not necessarily familiar with all of the Council’s procedures and requirements. The Panel members, however, wish to remind the broadcaster that the rules of the CBSC require the broadcaster to provide a copy of what was actually broadcast on air (including advisories, commercials, etc.), as opposed to a “pre-broadcast” copy sent by the producer to the broadcaster. 4
In all CBSC decisions, the Panels assess the broadcaster’s response to the complainant. The broadcaster need not agree with the complainant’s position, but it must respond in a courteous, thoughtful and thorough manner. In this case, TLN en Español sent a reply to the complainant explaining its viewpoint about the broadcast. The broadcaster fulfilled its obligations of responsiveness and nothing further is required in this regard in this instance.
This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. It may be reported, announced or read by the station against which the complaint had originally been made; however, in the case of a favourable decision, the station is under no obligation to announce the result.
1 See the following decisions in which the CBSC dealt with the use of various terms relating to race, ethnicity and nationality: CFRA-AM re The Lowell Green Show (Somalia Commission Report) (CBSC Decision 96/97-0238, February 20, 1998); CKTB-AM re an episode of the Phil Hendrie Show (CBSC Decision 02/03-0383, May 2, 2003); SRC re Bye Bye 2008 (CBSC Decision 08/09-0620+, March 17, 2009); CIDC-FM re a parody of the carol “Twelve Days of Christmas” (CBSC Decision 10/11-0665, July 12, 2011); and CFXL-FM re a comment made on Tom Kent (CBSC Decision 11/12-1195, July 18, 2012).
2 See the following decisions in which the CBSC concluded that certain references to race, ethnicity or religion in the context of a fictional program did not violate the Codes: OUTtv re the film L.I.E. (CBSC Decision 09/10-1703, January 7, 2011) and Global re Family Guy (“Stewie B. Goode”) (CBSC Decision 10/11-2201, February 2, 2012).
3 See the following decisions in which the Panels were evenly split regarding certain issues: Global re ReGenesis (“Baby Bomb”) (CBSC Decision 04/05-1996, January 20, 2006) and CKNW-AM re episodes of Bruce Allen’s Reality Check and the Christy Clark Show (CBSC Decision 07/08-0127 & -0469, November 27, 2007).
4 See the following previous decisions in which the CBSC came to similar conclusions with respect to the provision of logger files by new CBSC members: Bravo! re the documentary film Give Me Your Soul (CBSC Decision 00/01-1021, January 16, 2002); Bravo! re the film The House of the Spirits (CBSC Decision 00/01-0738, January 16, 2002); VRAK-TV re Charmed (“Dead Man Dating”) (CBSC Decision 02/03-0365, July 17, 2003); and Canal D re Festival Juste pour Rire and Comicographies Juste pour Rire: François Morency (CBSC Decision 02/03-0142 & -0143, July 17, 2003).