Sale of Paper in Venezuela Raises Fears on Freedom

The newspaper, El Universal, whose sale was announced this month, is the third major media outlet to change han...

The newspaper, El Universal, whose sale was announced this month, is the third major media outlet to change hands here since the death last year of the country_s longtime socialist president, Hugo Ch__vez, and the election of his handpicked successor, Nicol__s Maduro.

Venezuela is a deeply divided country, where propaganda and the news media have long been part of the political battleground between a powerful leftist state and an opposition concentrated in the middle class and the elite. The government operates at least 10 television stations and more than 100 radio stations, and critics say that independent media outlets increasingly feel pressured into silence or self-censorship.

The two other recent media sales involved Globovisi__n, a television station that aggressively promoted the opposition_s political agenda, and Cadena Capriles, a newspaper chain that publishes _ltimas Noticias, one of the country_s highest-circulation dailies. Under the new ownership, news coverage at both of those outlets became more favorable toward the government.

Many here fear that the same thing could happen at El Universal, a 105-year-old broadsheet that has been consistently critical of the government in its opinion pages and its news reporting.

In a defiant blog post on the newspaper_s website, the editor in chief of El Universal, Elides Rojas, challenged the new owners to maintain the newspaper_s journalistic standards.

_Events like those that occurred at Globovisi__n or Cadena Capriles,_ Mr. Rojas wrote, _will not be accepted under any circumstance._

In an interview, Mr. Rojas said that he is willing to work with the new owners and give them the benefit of the doubt, but he fears that the purchase is part of a wider pattern of growing government influence over the news media.

At the root of such suspicions is the mystery around the newspaper_s new owner, which was identified last week as a tiny Spanish company, previously unknown here, called Epalisticia.

_I think that behind this there are some straw purchasers connected to people friendly to the government,_ Mr. Rojas said.

Spanish government records show that Epalisticia was first registered in Madrid last August, filing papers that said it was in the real estate and construction business. But in October the company submitted a new filing, declaring that its purpose was _the investment in and administration of communications media,_ with a focus on Latin America.

The company_s website was created just a few weeks ago by a website designer in Miami and is only partly functioning, with many broken links, such as the one on its home page marked _newsroom._ The website says the company has _capital commitments of more than $1 billion,_ but it gives no specifics about any investments.

Messages sent to an email address provided on the website were returned with a message saying that delivery had failed. Phone calls to the company_s telephone number went unanswered.

The new owners appointed as president of El Universal a Venezuelan businessman, Jes__s Abreu, the brother of Jos__ Antonio Abreu, the founder of a well-known classical music program for poor youths called El Sistema.

In an interview printed in El Universal on Sunday, Mr. Abreu said, _I have no reason to assume that there has been a negotiation between the new investors and the government._

Asked about concerns about the newspaper_s direction, he said, _We won_t just be critical of the government, but of everything that needs criticizing._

The sale of El Universal appears to follow a similar pattern to the other recent media sales, where in each case there were suspicions that government allies were behind the purchase.

The sales have drawn suspicion in part because Venezuela has a long tradition of straw-man transactions, in which wealthy or powerful individuals use another person as a stand-in to hide their ownership.

The Globovisi__n sale closed in April 2013, just days after Mr. Maduro won a close election to replace Mr. Ch__vez.

Globovisi__n had acted as a counterweight to a group of government-run television stations that serve as part of the government_s heavily financed propaganda arm. It provided a space for opposition politicians and supporters to express their views, and during the presidential campaigns in April 2013 and the previous October (when Mr. Ch__vez was re-elected), it regularly broadcast the events held by the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, seeming to be almost a part of his campaign.

But after the sale, the station stopped its start-to-finish coverage of opposition events and Mr. Capriles stopped appearing there. Several reporters and show hosts were fired or had their programs canceled, and others left complaining of politically motivated meddling by the new management.

Cadena Capriles, the publisher of _ltimas Noticias, (it has no connection to Mr. Capriles, the politician) was sold in October. _ltimas Noticias was unique in that it had a pro-government editorial slant _ its top editor writes a regular pro-government column _ while its news reporting was generally evenhanded, including many stories that took a hard look at government programs, public officials and the effects of government policies.

But after the sale, reporters complained that stories critical of the government were being held back and that coverage over all was becoming more slanted in favor of the government.

One example that angered reporters came in February, when three people were shot to death during a day of protests in Caracas _ the first deaths in what became weeks of sometimes violent antigovernment demonstrations. But the next day the killings were given a secondary headline on the newspaper_s front page, below a large headline that quoted Mr. Maduro saying, _We are facing a coup._

Critics of the newspaper_s management have created a Twitter account in which they air charges that the new owners have pressured reporters and editors to alter coverage in favor of the government.

Several reporters and editors have quit and reporters recently began a byline strike, keeping their names off articles, to protest the newspaper_s direction.

The editor of _ltimas Noticias, Eleazar D__az Rangel, recently defended the government_s record on press freedom as well as his management of the newspaper, when he was awarded a journalism prize, handed to him at a ceremony by Mr. Maduro.

_Since Hugo Ch__vez became president, censorship and other forms of repression of the press stopped,_ Mr. D__az Rangel said.

And he denied censoring the news. _There is not enough paper to print everything that comes in to the newspaper and so we have to pick and choose, and some people call that censorship,_ he said.

But government critics point to increasing pressures.

_The information ecosystem in Venezuela is currently subjected to strong political pressure that affects its diversity and pluralism,_ said Carlos Correa, the executive director of Public Space, a nonprofit organization focusing on press freedom.

Mr. Correa pointed out that Globovisi__n was sold after it was repeatedly hit with large fines by a government regulatory agency over its news coverage, including charges that its coverage of a prison riot had instigated violence. Before that, the main pro-opposition television station, RCTV, lost its broadcast license in 2007. And during the protests this year, Mr. Maduro ordered a Colombian news channel, NTN24, barred from cable here, saying he objected to its coverage.

Newspapers have also come under pressure as the government has refused to allow them to obtain dollars needed to import newsprint. El Universal and several other papers have reduced the number of pages they print and have warned they might have to stop printing if paper runs out. Some regional newspapers have stopped printing temporarily because of the shortage.

_There is a government policy to harass and bother the media,_ Mr. Correa said.

New York Times | By WILLIAM NEUMAN

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