Windhoek - The Namibian government has banned its departments from advertising in the country's main daily newspaper because the paper was too critical of the state's policies, an official said on Friday.

Information and Broadcasting Permanent Secretary Moks Shivute said the decision was taken because The Namibian "considered itself to be the official opposition".

"The ban (on advertising in) The Namibian was issued by cabinet in December already, but never fully imposed," Shivute said.

But, he said a recent front-page story, in which the newspaper reported on an anti-gay tirade by President Sam Nujoma, was a clear illustration that the paper had a policy of "deliberate distortion".

"The president made a very important speech at the university about solar energy, but the newspaper chose to concentrate on the (anti-gay) remarks," Shivute said.

In a speech televised on Monday, Nujoma claimed homosexuality was illegal under the Namibian constitution laws and ordered the police to arrest, imprison and deport any gays and lesbians in the country.

The story enjoyed wide international coverage.

The Namibian on Friday published a copy of an urgent ministerial memorandum, reminding officials that all government advertising was banned from The Namibian in terms of a cabinet decision taken in December.

"This was because of its anti-government stance and unwarranted criticism of government policies," the memorandum stated.

Ironically, the same newspaper had been villified by apartheid authorities during the 1980s for being a mouthpiece of Swapo, the currently ruling South West Africa People's Organisation.

The then government also banned all state advertising, and the newspaper's offices were firebombed by agents of apartheid. Namibia became independent from South Africa in 1990 after a liberation war waged by Swapo.

Editor Gwen Lister said she had been aware of the economic boycott urged by the cabinet, but had hoped would not happen until the memorandum, confirming the ban, was leaked to the paper this week.

"It's quite a sad day for us. It is something that we have seen before, but had hoped we would never see again," Lister said.

She said the anti-gay remarks by Nujoma were taken from the official news bulletin by the state broadcaster.

"I fail to understand why we are being singled out," she said.

But coverage by opposition party's criticism of Nujoma's apparent intention to hang on to power for a fourth consecutive term may also have been instrumental in prompting the ban, Lister said.

The Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) on Friday condemned the ban.

"If this is a policy decision, then it is a clear signal that freedom of speech in Namibia is in grave danger," it said. - Sapa-AFP