Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is using a subordinate legislature and judicial system to weaken his critics in the media, representatives of a U.S.-based press freedom watchdog warned.

Delegates from the Inter American Press Association wrapped up a 3-day visit to Venezuela on Wednesday expressing concerns the government was using the courts and legal reforms to crack down on dissent.

IAPA President Diana Daniels of the Washington Post said delegates were worried that threats to press freedoms under Chavez could increase as Venezuela prepares for presidential elections in December.

CountryWatch: Venezuela

"The different branches of government appear to have a strategy to weaken the work of the independent press," Daniels told a press conference. "We are worried that, far from improving press conditions in the country, freedom could be further restricted before and after the election."

Chavez denies limiting press freedoms, and frequently points to the private media's strident criticism of his government as irrefutable evidence of freedom of expression in Venezuela.

Gonzalo Marroquin, head of the IAPA press freedoms commission, said the most serious threats to the press were new laws allowing the government to shut down media outlets that violate strict broadcasting norms and reforms increasing prison sentences for libel and slander.

Criminal investigations involving several Venezuelan journalists — most of them outspoken Chavez critics — appeared to be aimed at intimidating the media, said Marroquin, publisher of Prensa Libre of Guatemala.

Several high-profile journalists, including newspaper editor Patricia Poleo and TV program host Napoleon Bravo, are facing criminal charges for offenses ranging from libel to homicide.

The journalists claim government-friendly prosecutors and judges have targeted them with trumped up charges as means of silencing their criticism of Chavez. Government officials deny the allegations, countering that Venezuela's justice system is completely autonomous.

Marroquin said the Miami-based IAPA — an organization of newspapers and magazines spanning the Americas — also was deeply concerned by recent government threats not to renew broadcast licenses for opposition-sided television networks.

"We are worried about judicial procedures against journalists and media outlets, statements by officials warning of revoking or not renewing licenses due to the media's editorial lines and approval of laws" restricting freedom of expression, he said.

Chavez hinted last month that his administration would not renew broadcast licenses for privately owned TV channels, which he accused of trying to divide Venezuela as part of an "imperialist plan" led by his adversaries in the United States.

Government officials say the Law for Responsibility in Radio and Television, which strictly bans vulgar language, sex and violence during daytime broadcasts, is aimed at protecting children while raising media standards rather than restricting them.

Violators of the legislation, which was approved by pro-Chavez lawmakers in late 2004, can be slapped with heavy fines or have their broadcast licenses yanked by government regulators.