Another media company critical of the Venezuelan government is sold: Spanish investors buy El Universal
Private news enterprises have weathered a long history of crippling attacks from the Venezuelan government. Some media owners are now giving up and selling their properties.
Opposition newspaper El Universal becomes Venezuela’s third media giant sold to investors under the presidency of Nicolás Maduro, and represents another blow to private media in its long battle to survive under Venezuela’s Bolivarian government.
The 105-year-old El Universal is the most traditional and one of the most important newspapers in Venezuela. It was launched by the poet Andrés Mata in April 1909 and has been the property of the Mata family until last week, when it was sold to an unspecified Spanish conglomerate. The new management promised to keep the editorial staff, but most employees are worried for the future and some are already leaving, reported El Universo newspaper from Ecuador.
Venezuela’s newspaper leader in circulation, Últimas Noticias, and other properties of the Cadena Capriles, one of the largest media conglomerates in the country, were also sold in October 2013 to English corporate conglomerate with close ties to the government. Similarly, in March 2013, the TV network Globovisión was sold to an insurance broker after months of crippling “investigations, fines, and violence” from the government.
Numerous media outlets have been closed down, lightened or have seen ownership change since the presidency of Hugo Chávez in 1999 and especially after he accused private media of organizing a 2002 coup d’état against him. Maduro, Chávez’s handpicked successor, has continued to fight against independent reporting amidst widespread social unrest and polarized politics in Venezuela since Chávez’s death in 2013.
Pressures levied against media by the government have been very deep. In a June 2014 interview with El Universal, the editor of Notitarde, a local newspaper in the central region of the country called Venezuelan censorship “much more perverse and sophisticated” than raiding stations and arresting journalists. He said that the government used economic pressure or persuaded conglomerate owners to sell media outlets to approved buyers.
Censorship and pressure has increased under Maduro, but current shake-ups in the press are the part of a long campaign to weaken private media, says New York based Committee to Protect Journalists.
THE WAR ON TV
Globovisión was only the latest TV station to fall under new control in a long war between private media and the governments of Chávez and Maduro.
Chávez declared war on Venezuela’s private TV stations after he alleged the participation of media bosses in a 2002 coup that briefly ousted him from power. He called the country's four main private TV stations, Venevisión, Radio Caracas TV, GLobovisión and Televen, the “four horsemen of the apocalypse.”
In 2004 Chávez passed the Law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Film, imposing a new media framework in which broadcasts could not “promote, defend, or incite breaches in public order,” “disrespect authorities,” “foment citizens’ anxieties or alter public order” among other restrictions. The law was expanded in 2011 to regulate the internet.
After the 2004 law, TV network Televen abandoned its editorial position and adopted a specifically neutral standpoint, canceling the political talk show hosted by reporter Marta Colomina.
In 2007 Chávez declined to renew the broadcasting license of, Radio Caracas TV, RCTV, which routinely opposed his policies on air. As a result, the station was taken off the air. Some officials cited the station’s anti-government position as reason for the shutdown, but communications minister William Lara told the Committee to Protect Journalists that the station violated the 2004 media law by broadcasting sexually suggestive images during daylight. The station has remained closed.
After the example set by the government with RCTV, Venevisión, a major TV network, restructured its coverage, replaced some programs and stopped routine criticism of the president. Gustavos Cisneros, the billionaire owner of the Cisneros Group conglomerate, reportedly reached an agreement for the station to avoid politics and focus instead on entertainment.
Guillermo Zuloaga, owner of Globovisión, wrote in a letter explaining the sale to his employees, “We are economically unviable because our income does not cover our necessary expenses…We are politically unviable because we are in a totally polarized country, on the other side of an all-powerful government that wants to see us fail.”
He accepted Cordero’s offer to buy Globovisión, he said, because it was the only way to “permit [him] to maintain a staff of almost 500 people.”
Later, Globovisión commentator Francisco Bautista was fired for airing a speech by opposition candidate Henrique Capriles. Other journalists quit the station in protest of encroaching government restrictions on media.
When anti-government demonstrations broke out across the country in February, most TV stations ignored them. Only Colombian network NTN24 (widely watched in Venezuela via cable) aired thorough video coverage of the protests, and days later it was ordered off the cable systems in Venezuela. Maduro also ordered CNN journalists out of the country for its coverage of the protest though he retracted his order days later.
THE ECONOMICS OF PAPER
In June 2013, the Inter American Press Association said that it was worried by economic attacks on Venezuelan media. The article said, “The Inter American Press Association expressed its concerns to the Venezuelan government for abrupt economic measures against journalists and journalistic enterprises, which could be a part of a harassment campaign against the independent press.”
Reuters reported in September 2013 that at least five Venezuelan newspapers had temporarily stopped publishing for lack of paper and others were cutting back pages. One of the country’s oldest newspapers, El Impulso, shortened its print publication in October, claiming to have waited 11 months for government authorization that would allow it to buy paper.
In January 2014, Caracas daily newspaper El Nacional ran on its first page a card addressed to president Maduro calling attention to the shortage of newsprint that it and its competitors were facing after being denied the necessary currency exchange to buy paper. The economic policy was alleged repression of print media. Hundreds of journalists marched in Caracas to protest what they considered the government’s stranglehold on newspapers.
In May the newspaper El Universal declared itself in a state of emergency for lack of paper and cut it publication to 16 pages. The government had even blocked a shipment stored at a port since January.
An association of Colombian media editors sent over 100 tons of newsprint on loan to prevent various Venezuelan newspapers from closing, including El Nacional, El Nuevo Pais, and El Impulso. Several newspapers, including “El Sol de Maturin,” “Notidiario,” “La Hora,” “Caribe” and “Antorcha” closed down since paper became less available.
LEGAL PERSECUTION UNDER MEDIA LAW
Other organizations also allege that the government has used legal sanctions to combat private media. Media authorities, like Leocenis Garcia, president of Grupo 6to Poder (who had previously staged a hunger strike in protest of anti-media policies), and Miguel Henrique Otero, owner of newspaper El Nacional, had their bank accounts immediately frozen after criminal charges.
The 2004 Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Film provided legal grounds for media persecution.
In a 2004 article analyzing the law, Human Rights Watch’s Americas director José Miguel Vivanco said “This legislation severely threatens press freedom in Venezuela. Its vaguely worded restrictions and heavy penalties are a recipe for self-censorship by the press and arbitrariness by government authorities.”
The law was advertised as an effort to keep sex and violence off daytime TV, but many opposition groups see it as an easy means for legal suppression of dissent from the official story. Under the law, in May 2014, the government shut down a radio talk program, which staunchly supported student-lead anti-government protests, for allegedly disseminating “information that promotes hatred, incites or defends criminal acts, constitutes war propaganda, or alters public order,” though no specific examples were cited.
In 2013 Maduro created CESSPA, the Strategic Center for Security and Protection of the Motherland, to help identify and combat plots against Venezuela, though many regard it as a mechanism of information control. There have been several media blackouts since mass protests broke out in February.
Maduro has verbally berated newspapers. Amidst a food shortage in late 2013, he asked his party for “special measures” taken against media outlets he accused of waging a “psychological war.” In February 2014 he accused the press of inciting violence and announced legislation to persecute “sensationalism” in reporting.
Investors who bought other media companies critical of the Venezuelan government said they would not change the editorial line of their outlets, but eventually they did. With this trend, it is to be seen if El Universal will also change its opposition editorial line.
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