By Peroshni Govender
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's public broadcaster canceled the appearance of three prominent journalists on a radio show to discuss coverage of an upcoming ANC leadership conference, drawing accusations from critics of censorship to protect the ruling party.
Minutes before the journalists - two from local newspapers and one from the British-based Financial Times - were to go on air on Tuesday night, they were told by broadcaster SABC's staff, who received instructions from top brass, that their views would no longer be needed.
Show host Sakina Kamwendo held back tears as she told listeners the segment to discuss how the media was covering the run-up to the ANC's party elections later this month was canceled. Music was played in the show's scheduled slot.
The head of the SABC told journalists on Wednesday the broadcaster stopped the show because there was no representative from the ANC on the program, which would be unfair to the ruling party.
The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) is Africa's richest broadcaster by revenue.
It was set up to be independent but has faced criticism from within its ranks and beyond of being a mouthpiece for the government of the day - from the apartheid regime that ended in 1994 to the African National Congress which has ruled since.
Several media watchdog groups and the ANC Youth League, which is often at odds with the mother body, said the cancellation of the segment showed the public broadcaster was a tool of President Jacob Zuma's government.
"The SABC consistently fails to uphold objectivity in the execution of its mandate and has become a ridiculous pawn in the political theatre they are expected to impartially report on," the Youth League said in a statement.
The SABC relies heavily on TV taxes paid by the public and government funding for revenue but has faced mounting debt that analysts blame on a bloated staff and incompetent management.
Media watchdogs have said its news reports are often tilted in favor of Zuma, who is on track to be re-elected to the ANC's top post this month with widespread approval from party branches. The SABC says the reports are fair and balanced.
(Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Pascal Fletcher)