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Zuma's media censorship 'is like going back to Apartheid era'

The South African government has been accused of resorting to censorship policies reminiscent of the Apartheid era in a bid to silence its critics in the media.

The ruling African National Congress is pushing a series of measures which would, opponents say, undermine freedom of speech, criminalise investigative reporting and threaten whistleblowers in the civil service with lengthy prison sentences.

The Protection of Information Bill, currently before parliament, where the ANC holds a two-thirds majority, is part of two-pronged effort to bring the media under closer control. The second stage is a proposed Media Tribunal which would make South Africa's press – often accused by the government of being anti-ANC – answerable to parliament.

In a petition launched on Friday opposing the measures a host of South Africa's leading writers, including Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, hit out at a return to Apartheid-era censorship.

"The signatures below are those of writers whose work was banned under the Apartheid regime," read an open letter drafted by Gordimer, André Brink, Njabulo Ndebele, John Kani and Achmat Dangor. "We are threatened again, now with a gag over the word processor."

The writers described the tribunal as the "descent of a shutter over the dialogue of the arts" and the creation of the "Word Police".

In recent years South Africa's press has been increasingly occupied by the rise of the "tenderpreneurs" – a new, wealthy elite who use their political connections to benefit from state contracts.

Many of the sweetheart deals have come through the largely discredited Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) programme that was meant to improve the lot of disadvantaged blacks but has helped to create a new, narrow elite.

Earlier this month a company headed by Jacob Zuma's 28-year-old son Duduzane was shown to have received more than £80m in shares from Arcelor-Mittal. The company said the stake in the South African arm of the steel giant was allocated for "strategic assistance" with meeting its BEE requirements.

Other beneficiaries included the reported girlfriend of the deputy president and an "empowerment advisory counsel" to the President.

The information bill would give the power to heads of government agencies to classify whole swathes of information on the grounds that it was in the "national interest". This would then make disclosure of related information a criminal offence punishable with up to 25 years in prison. Lawyers are concerned with the vague language employed in the current draft with the national interest defined in terms such as "the survival and security of the state".

The country's leading legal body, the General Council of the Bar, said several provisions of the bill were "plainly contrary" to freedoms enshrined in its much-admired constitution.

Critics accuse the ANC of exhibiting a paranoid tendency in response to legitimate journalistic criticism of abuses of power. The most obvious example came recently with the leader of the ANC Youth League Julius Malema, who famously had a BBC reporter thrown out of a press conference and launched a verbal tirade in response to a question over the politician's living arrangements.

Mr Malema, who likes to boast about his lavish lifestyle, is under investigation over links to firms that have earned millions of pounds in state contracts. The allegations about his income came to light in the South African press which has published regular "lifestyle audits" of leading public figures.

The President himself has been angered by repeated allegations about his private life including accusations that he has fathered children out of wedlock and that one of his wives was carrying the child of one of his bodyguards.

The information bill's backers insist that it is intended to curb the worst practices of the sensationalist media and guarantee minimum standards in a sector dogged by uneven quality.

However, business leaders have joined journalists and writers in condemning the proposals saying they will undermine the fight against corruption and damage the country's standing internationally.

In the face of a storm of protest, which along with the public sector strike, has soured the afterglow of the successful football World Cup, the ANC has indicated that it may dilute some of the intended measures.

Some compromises have already been suggested by ANC allies in the unions. The head of the trades union congress, Zwelinzima Vavi, has called for the government to change the proposed tribunal by offering to recuse its appointed members when a case is brought that involves criticism of the ANC.

But voices of moderation have been hard to hear over the din of accusations being traded. And the arrest earlier this month of a reporter with South Africa's Sunday Times, Mzilikazi wa Afrika, has further stoked tensions. He was taken in on fraud charges within days of publishing a front page article implicating police chief Bheki Cele in a "suspicious" property deal.

South Africa's disgraced former police chief and ANC stalwart Jackie Selebi has just been imprisoned for 15 years, in what the ruling party insisted was the turning of a new page on corruption.