Not content with suppressing traditional mass media, Venezuelan prexy Hugo Chavez is now calling for the regulation of the Internet.

On March 13, he declared that the Internet “cannot be free; every country must have its norms, regulations and laws.” He cited Web reports — later debunked — about the alleged deaths of Mario Silva, a pro-Chavez TV anchor, and of the Minister of Public Works, Diosdado Cabello, as valid reasons for the restriction of cyberspace in Venezuela. Owners of website Noticiero Digital, where these reports surfaced, later said these were posted by unauthorized bloggers and suspect that they were planted by the government.

Looming parliamentary elections in September have been making the Chavez government skittish, as deteriorating economic conditions and chronic power cuts have eroded its popular support. Pundits see Chavez’s increasing attempts to

control the media as one of his strategies to remain in power.

The Internet is one of the last bastions of free speech in Venezuela, where radio and TV stations have been shut down or harassed for alleged anti-government bias. The highest-profile case is that of the country’s oldest web, RCTV, which lost its terrestrial signal in 2007, shifted to cable but was dropped this year by carriers in compliance with a new rule. That reg requires all local feevees to register with telecom regulator Conatel and air all mandatory government broadcasts; i.e., Chavez’s speeches. RCTV refused to comply and lost its berth. To circumvent this rule, RCTV has launched RCTV Mundo, which airs more than 75% foreign programming in order to qualify for an exemption.

So far, only DirecTV is carrying RCTV Mundo because the government has refused to greenlight its official launch. “Technically, RCTV Mundo doesn’t need the government’s approval to launch, but a climate of paranoia persists,” says helmer/producer Romulo Guardia, a former head of business development at RCTV.

Chavez’s Internet proposal would seek to emulate the single-network access system similar to that in Cuba.

At least 30% of the Venezuelan population has access to the Internet, according to Conatel, while social network Twitter has also grown in popularity.

Academics and human rights advocates have voiced their concerns, but if recent history is anything to go by, their protests will most likely be ignored.