NEW YORK, (IPS)—Anti-war messages are going up in Manhattan’s Times Square in time for the Republican Party convention in August after the company that owns the billboards, media giant Clear Channel, backed down from its refusal to carry them.

In a compromise, the group sponsoring the messages, Project Billboard, agreed to replace its original artwork, a stylised red, white and blue bomb, with a peace dove and the slogan, "Democracy is best taught by example, not by war."

As part of the deal—reached shortly after Project Billboard filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit against Clear Channel—it will also have a second display with a digital counter tallying the cost of the Iraq war and occupation. Both billboards will run for three months starting Aug. 2.

The Republican convention, which will officially nominate President George W Bush to contest for re-election in November, runs Aug. 30-Sep. 2.

"We’re very happy with the outcome," Deborah Rappaport, director of Project Billboard, told IPS. "For us, this was a speech issue, and the message was much more important than the image."

Clear Channel denies that politics played a role in the decision, saying that the bomb imagery was "inappropriate" and that the Marriott hotel where the billboard was to be located had objected.

But with the presidential election less than four months away, and criticism mounting of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, many free speech advocates describe the billboard flap as part of a growing climate of intimidation against critics of the Bush administration, by both the government and its corporate supporters.

"There has been a deliberate attempt on the part of the government to whip up war hysteria and to assert every moment in every public policy debate that this is different because the country is at war," said Eric Freedman, a law professor at Hoftra University in New York.

"Part of the collateral damage of defining the fight against terrorism as a ‘war’ is that it makes it easier to brand dissent as a threat to national security," he added in an interview. "It allows suppression of free speech that would otherwise be seen as simply tyrannical."

While there have been several instances of overt state censorship, such as people being arrested for wearing anti-Bush T-shirts, some say equally disturbing is the shrinking availability of public spaces that offer a variety of viewpoints.

"The thinking has been that when you have a free market and no direct government regulation of speech, that ensures free expression," said Svetlana Mintcheva, the arts programme director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, an alliance of 50 national non-profit organisations.

"More and more, this is shown to be a fallacy," she told IPS. "Clear Channel owns 800,000 billboards across the nation, which is a large part of the public space. We have major corporate consolidation, specifically in the media and communications fields, and it has a great impact on the quality of public discussion."

The Internet remains a key, mostly unregulated, outlet for political activism, but corporate control of more traditional media like radio and television has stymied some activists seeking to reach a broader, mainstream audience.

Multi-media giant Disney nearly derailed the anti-Bush documentary ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’—which is now setting box office records around the world — when it refused to distribute the film. And CBS recently vetoed a television spot by the liberal group MoveOn critical of Bush’s economic policies because, said the network, it does not run "issue ads."

"I think we are seeing a new McCarthyism, with the Bush administration using fear and intimidation to control the masses, in partnership with their corporate buddies," said Michael Williams, a columnist with the ‘Richmond Times-Dispatch’ newspaper who has written on censorship issues.

Williams was referring to the communist witch-hunts conducted in the 1950s by Senator Joe McCarthy, in which dozens of people—many of them Hollywood actors, writers and directors—suspected of "subversion" were placed on blacklists and prevented from working.

"I think that’s the new element here: the level in which corporations effectively work in tandem with this administration and the GOP (Republican Party) in stifling dissent," added Williams.

After Clear Channel backed out of its deal with Project Billboard, it emerged that the company had given more than 300,000 dollars in political contributions during the 2000 and 2002 election cycles, the vast majority to Republicans.

In March 2003, as the United States prepared to invade Iraq, some Clear Channel radio stations pulled country-rock group the Dixie Chicks from airplay because their lead singer, Natalie Mains, told a London audience, "we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas"—her home state.

Norma Sherry, a writer and co-founder of a group called Together Forever Changing, which works to safeguard civil liberties, says she receives e-mails daily from readers who applaud her articles castigating Bush but worry about what would happen if they did the same.

"They tell me they live in fear, and would never have the courage to shine the light upon themselves by voicing their opinions," Sherry said. "This is the United States of America, the land of the free. Since when have our citizens lived in fear of speaking out and saying what they think?"

Organisers of upcoming mass protests against the Democratic and Republican conventions expect their rights to free speech and peaceful assembly to shortly be put to the test. In New York, protesters won the right to march past the Republican meeting site at Madison Square Garden, but are still fighting to hold a mass rally in Central Park or Times Square. So far, the New York police department has insisted the rally take place in a relatively remote location on the far west side of Manhattan.

In Boston, where the Democratic Party will hold its convention this weekend, city bus drivers have been instructed to ban passengers carrying political signs, and were reportedly shown mandatory "anti-terror" training films that starred activists from the group Act Now to Stop War and End Racism.