CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – The Venezuelan government denounced a U.S. state senator on Thursday for claiming press freedoms here are under threat, a day after announcing it wants to fine some local news media for their reporting on a high-profile assassination case.

The Ministry of Communication and Information accused Vermont state Sen. Mark Shepard of defaming President Hugo Chavez’s government this week with claims that it was allegedly attacking press freedoms in Venezuela.

“Mark Shepard lies or is an irresponsible fool when he claims that in Venezuela freedom of expression is suppressed, the media is censored and legal rights are suppressed,” the ministry said in a statement carried by the government-run Bolivarian News Agency.

Shepard, a Republican from Bennington, Vt., who is running for the U.S. House of Representatives, told The Associated Press on Thursday that he raised the concerns in the Vermont Legislature based on a report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

“When you have these statements, that’s something that should be taken seriously,” Shepard said.

Information Minister Yuri Pimentel has announced that Venezuela will ask its telecommunications regulator to fine several domestic news outlets between 1 percent and 2 percent of their gross income for reporting on a court case involving a 2004 car bombing that killed prosecutor Danilo Anderson.

Pimentel accused local news media of conducting an “open war against government institutions” with the “intention of obstructing justice in the Anderson case.”

The attorney general’s office has alleged that reports by some TV stations and newspapers about a key witness were intended to discredit the prosecution’s case.

A Venezuelan judge last month banned local news media from reporting on the case’s legal proceedings – a decision immediately criticized by international press freedom groups.

Anderson was known for prosecuting opponents of Chavez, and officials claim his killing may have been politically motivated.

Chavez critics accuse the former paratroop commander of increasing authoritarianism, while Washington has labeled him a threat to democracy in the region.

Chavez denies the charges and claims Venezuela has become more democratic under his leftist policies. While having steadily consolidated power since taking office in 1999, Chavez continues to enjoy solid support among Venezuelans.

Shepard’s comments came in response to a resolution in the Vermont Legislature thanking Chavez for supplying discounted heating oil to low-income Vermonters.

Shepard said he opposed the resolution because Vermont has not yet received the oil and because of concerns raised by Human Rights Watch.

Venezuela has agreed to supply about 2.4 million gallons of oil to low-income Vermonters at a 40 percent discount. Another 108,000 gallons are to be distributed free to homeless shelters.

Venezuela-owned Citgo Petroleum Corp. also has discounted oil programs in Massachusetts, New York, Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware and the Philadelphia area.

Some Chavez critics have charged the heating-oil program is an attempt to embarrass U.S. President George W. Bush.

Associated Press Writer Lisa Rathke in Montpelier, Vermont, contributed to this report.

AP-ES-02-24-06 1104EST

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