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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 July 2006, 10:21 GMT 11:21 UK
Venezuela press freedoms 'worsen'
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez surrounded by reporters
Hugo Chavez says criticism of his government shows press freedom
A US-based media watchdog says press freedom has deteriorated markedly in Venezuela amid restrictive laws and harassment of journalists.

The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) said it was worried curbs would increase ahead of the presidential election due in December.

The IAPA urged the authorities to respect freedom of expression.

The Venezuelan government denied the claim and said the IAPA represented the interests of media tycoons.

A delegation from the Miami-based IAPA concluded a three-day visit to Venezuela, saying it had evidence of media workers being threatened or attacked by supporters of President Hugo Chavez.

The IAPA said the Venezuelan government was using the courts and legal reforms against journalists who were critical of it.

"The different branches of government appear to have a strategy to weaken the work of an independent press," IAPA President Diana Daniels told a press conference.

"We are worried that, far from improving press conditions in the country, freedom could be further restricted after the election."

'Mouthpiece'

President Chavez has denied limiting press freedom and says the fierce criticism of his government aired on private channels is a sign that Venezuelans enjoy freedom of expression.

The Venezuelan government refused to meet the delegation from the IAPA, which represents more than 1,000 publications across the Americas.

"It's a shame the IAPA representatives...did not have time to read, watch or listen to the media in our country, " Information Ministry official Amelia Bustillos said in a statement.

The government says the IAPA lacks credibility and is acting as a mouthpiece for Venezuela's opposition.

The visit by the IAPA came just weeks after the Venezuelan government threatened not to renew the licences of several private news channels.

Mr Chavez, who has long accused the channels of trying to bring him down, said at the time that they were waging a "psychological war" to try to divide and weaken the nation.

It is hard to find a country where the media is as polarised as in Venezuela, says the BBC's Greg Morsbach in Caracas.

While many private media companies are openly opposed to the government, state-owned broadcasters devote little or no space to opposition voices.


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