The Committee to Protect Journalists said in a new report Wednesday that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's government has used threats and a barrage of restrictive measures to gradually weaken the country's private news media.

The New York-based press freedom group said restrictions have come through harassment of critical journalists as well as fines and other measures to penalize coverage of sensitive subjects.

The group's report cited a $2.2 million fine against TV channel Globovision for its coverage of a deadly prison uprising last year. It also condemned an injunction issued earlier this year calling for journalists to base reports about water contamination on hard data, specifically requiring a "truthful technical report backed by a competent institution."

That measure came after reports in Venezuelan newspapers about complaints of contaminated drinking water, and after an oil spill that fouled the Guarapiche River in eastern Venezuela.

"The injunction on water reporting is only the latest addition to a minefield of legislative changes and presidential decrees put forth by Chavez's administration to restrict the independent media," CPJ said in its report. "Through its massive state media presence and its use of censorship, legal harassment, and administrative sanctions, the Chavez government sets clear limits on public dissent."

The group said such measures have led to censorship and a dearth of in-depth coverage about some key issues ahead of Venezuela's Oct. 7 presidential election. It also said access to information that should be public has increasingly been restricted, and that journalists from critical Venezuelan news organizations such as Globovision often are excluded from news conferences.

There was no immediate reaction from the Venezuelan government to the report. Chavez has repeatedly said that the government respects press freedom, while also strongly criticizing private media that he says campaign against him.

Chavez on Tuesday accused his opponents of using the media for political purposes to take advantage of last weekend's deadly refinery explosion, which killed dozens and set off debate about safety measures within the oil industry.

"They have a well thought-out strategy that we shouldn't underestimate," Chavez said in a television Cabinet meeting.

Joel Simon, CPJ's executive director, said past government measures against critical media outlets are likely to have an impact as Venezuelan journalists report on the disaster because some may be concerned about reprisals for aggressive reporting.

"The legal environment that exists now is journalists always have to worry whether reporting, even nuts-and-bolts reporting about issues that have broad impact for the public, things like crime, things like public safety, whether there could be government action and legal action as a result of that reporting," Simon said in a telephone interview from New York. "And that's simply unacceptable, particularly in the context of a political campaign."


Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap