Negative international coverage of SA's perceived intention to restrict the freedom of the press and expression is increasingly concerning the government, chief government spokesman Themba Maseko said yesterday.

The Protection of Information Bill, presently before Parliament, and proposals from the African National Congress (ANC) for a media tribunal have unleashed an explosion of critical reporting, reaching the rate of three stories a day in local and international media.

Briefing the media after this week's Cabinet meeting, Mr Maseko stressed that a top-level meeting between the government and senior editors needed to be held as soon as possible to take the debate on media regulation further, and attempts were under way to set a date for the meeting.

Mr Maseko said the issue was one of self-regulation versus the suggestion that there be statutory regulation through a tribunal. He stressed that the idea of a tribunal was still with the ruling party and was not government policy.

He acknowledged that the negative stories had "migrated" to international pages and "we are obviously concerned about that".

He said while there was no intention at this stage of withdrawing the Protection of Information Bill, he gave the assurance that criticism of it in parliamentary hearings would be taken into account and action would be contemplated if needed.

"It is a discussion that needs, in my view, to take place without emotion, without people yelling insults at each other, calling each other names, which is what one is observing in a lot of the media stories and articles over the past few weeks."

The Protection of Information Bill seeks to establish a new regime for the classification of government documents and provides draconian prison terms for those who publish classified information, leading to the criticism that it will effectively shut down investigative journalism.

Civil society has called for a public-interest defence to be specifically included in the bill.

Meanwhile, South African Communist Party (SACP) secretary- general Blade Nzimande yesterday criticised the role of media in democracies. "While media can be a very important ally to democracy, it can be a severe obstacle to advancement," he said in Johannesburg.

His deputy, Jeremy Cronin, said the SACP had not taken a position on the media tribunal or the Protection of Information Bill but wanted to join the discussion.

The party was due to announce its position after its central committee meeting next week. "We're not saying let's have one, we're saying let's look at it, we're saying the current self-regulator is not working as effectively as it should."

However, he said there was now a "conversation of the deaf" with neither side listening to each other.

"We need a control of information legislation, everything we're saying from the ANC side is now assumed to be suppressing you."

Independent Newspapers Cape editor-in-chief, Chris Whitfield said at the Cape Town Press Club that more business leaders should raise their voice against the government's planned media controls.

"Business leaders standing for press freedom could play an important role in bringing this dangerous trend against the media to a halt.

"For the business community, or any concerned South African for that matter, to stand outside of this debate would be terribly shortsighted," Mr Whitfield said. With Wilson Johwa and Sapa