JOHANNESBURG – South African President Jacob Zuma rejected media criticism of a proposed tribunal to oversee print and broadcast operators and called for “real debate” on ownership, content and diversity in the industry.

Arguments that the ruling African National Congress wants to suppress media freedom are based on a “falsehood that the ruling party has no ethics, morals and values,” Zuma said in an e-mailed statement Saturday.

Zuma was “astounded” by criticism of his party’s proposal to establish a government-controlled Media Appeals Tribunal that would probe complaints against reporters.

“Let us look at the issues and the state of the media in South Africa as an institution that claims to be the watchdog of South African society,” Zuma said in the statement. “The media has put itself on this pedestal of being the guardian. We therefore have the right to say who is guarding the guardian?”

The ANC, which has ruled South Africa since the end of white-minority rule in 1994, has also proposed legislation that would allow the government to classify any official document as being in the “national interest” and jail anyone in possession of it without authorization for as long as 25 years.

Media critics, civil rights groups and opposition parties have argued the move would criminalize investigative reporting, make it difficult to expose corruption and violate post-apartheid guarantees of free speech in the constitution.

“It is the democratic government that has made it fashionable to fight corruption,” Zuma said. “We have a big arsenal of instruments to fight corruption within the state, and these are performing their functions very effectively.”

The Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s main opposition party, has said the legislation proposed by the ANC is reminiscent of the apartheid regime, which banned several newspapers and detained journalists without trial. The Democratic Alliance plans to challenge the planned law in court on constitutional grounds if the ANC-dominated parliament passes the measures, party leader Helen Zille said Aug. 5.

“To even suggest that the ANC and its government could have any similarities to the apartheid regime is not only preposterous, it is also disingenuous,” Zuma said.

Attempts to establish a media tribunal are premised on the fact that other occupations including the teaching, medical, legal and engineering professions had mechanisms in place to ensure victims of malpractice “had recourse,” said Zuma.

“Media owners and media practitioners cannot claim that this institution is totally snow white and without fault,” said Zuma. “They cannot claim that the media products we have in our country today, adequately reflect the lives and aspirations of all South Africans, especially the poor.”

South Africa’s newspaper industry is dominated by four companies: Naspers Ltd., Independent News and Media PLC, Caxton and CTP Publishers and Printers Ltd. and Avusa Ltd.