The ANC this week summoned SABC executives to the party's headquarters at Luthuli House in Johannesburg to haul them over the coals for what party bosses claim is political bias.

The move has sparked strong criticism from several civil society organisations, which have condemned party interference in what is meant to be an apolitical public broadcaster.

The meeting took place in Johannesburg on Monday amid claims by the ANC top brass that the national broadcaster was favouring the Shikota party, formed by Mosiuoa Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa.

But several organisations, including the Freedom of Expression Institute, the Save the SABC Coalition, the Media Monitoring Project and the Media Institute of South Africa, have condemned what they see as political interference by the ANC, saying it harked back to the days when the SABC was a propaganda tool of the National Party.

Gwede Mantashe, the ANC's secretary-general, and Jessie Duarte, its spokesperson, met Gab Mampone, the acting group chief executive of the SABC, and Snuki Zikalala, the corporation's managing director for news.

Mantashe and Duarte were critical of the SABC's post-Polokwane coverage of the ANC, and expressed alarm at the portrayal of Jacob Zuma, the party's leader, and anger at the lack of coverage of the government's service delivery projects.

They also said they were unhappy that, with an election only six months away, it seemed that the national broadcaster was promoting the breakaway Shikota party.

Duarte told The Sunday Independent on Saturday: "We don't want the SABC to be an ANC mouthpiece; we want them to be objective in covering all of South Africa.

"We raised issues around, for example, the coverage of the president who, whether he talks about agriculture or economics, is always shown dancing outside the Pietermaritzburg High Court," she said.

"We are not saying we should be the only organisation covered; all we want is for the country to be covered objectively."

She said the ANC had also raised questions about journalists with political affiliations and how their affiliations affected the outcome of news stories.

"All we wanted was a good idea of events as we go forward to the elections and, given the current events, we have the impression that the SABC is promoting the breakaway party," she said.

Duarte denied claims that the ANC was becoming like the National Party when it used the SABC as a propaganda tool.

"We are not friends with the SABC, but we called the meeting, as all political parties do, to express our concern over the issues that bother us from time to time.

"The ANC is, after all, the ruling party."

Duarte said Morning Live on SABC 2 always travelled to rural parts of the country and broadcast from small villages, but did not tell viewers that 2,9-million houses had been built since the advent of democracy in South Africa.

"Increasingly, when there is a story about the ANC, from the first sentence one gets the impression that the report is negative. We need objectivity," she said.

Raymond Louw, the deputy chairperson of the South African chapter of the Media Institute, said the SABC looked as though it was at the "beck and call" of the ANC.

"Though the ANC might have a legitimate complaint, as do others, it is given a fair amount of space, but there is a great deal of suspicion about the meeting with the SABC," he said.

He said the ANC should raise its complaints concerning coverage with the National Editors' Forum.

Anton Harber, the professor of journalism at Wits University, said that for the ANC to give the SABC instructions on objectivity was a contradiction in terms.

"If they are concerned about the public broadcaster being fair and balanced, then they should acknowledge that there needs to be more distance between political parties and the SABC.

"They would need to stop the practice of deploying cadres to run the place and encourage those who work there to establish proper arm's-length relationships with all interest groups."

He said the SABC was foolishly shortsighted to allow itself to be summoned for instruction.

"They will now be obliged to respond to a similar summons from any other political party or interest group, an untenable situation."

William Bird, the head of the Media Monitoring Project, said the SABC had come under undue attack from different quarters, and that journalists and executive producers were being put under severe pressure.

"People have been demanding to be put on shows. The SABC needs to assert its authority," he said.