JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's ruling African National Congress said on Tuesday the public broadcaster, accused by opposition parties of pro-government bias as local elections approach, was practicing censorship by not broadcasting images of violent anti-state protests.
The comments by party chief whip Jackson Mthembu represent a U-turn and may point to schisms in the ANC, which in May welcomed the broadcast ban by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) as the "best decision."
"When property is burnt, people of South Africa need to be shown those images, that is the ANC view. Because when you don't show those images, that amounts to censorship," Mthembu said in a televised media briefing.
"You can't take that decision, in our view. That decision can be taken by the people of South Africa. Not anybody sitting in some cosy office to decide and be that arrogant and decide what it is that the people can see or not see," he said.
SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng, who has pushed through a number of policy changes at the broadcaster, is considered close to President Jacob Zuma, whose popularity has been sagging with record-high unemployment, a looming recession and a string of scandals.
Mthembu said the ANC would meet with Communications Minister Faith Muthambi on Monday to discuss the SABC, where the acting chief executive, a journalist, resigned last week, citing a "corrosive atmosphere".
Outbursts of violence over the lack of services such as water or roads are common in South Africa, and in recent months have included the torching of schools and other property, both public and private.
The protests have taken on political significance before Aug. 3 elections, which are expected to be the ANC's sternest test at the polls since it came to power in 1994.
The SABC said its decision not to broadcast such incidents was an "editorial decision" and not a "policy issue."
"It should be noted that the decision is not to censor any violent protests but not to glamorise the act of burning public property," the SABC said in a statement.
Various civil society and media groups have protested the broadcast ban on civil disturbances by the SABC, which has the widest broadcasting reach in South Africa.
(Reporting by Tanisha Heiberg; Writing by Ed Stoddard; Editing by James Macharia, Larry King)