Venezuelan government newsprint squeeze forces newspaper to stop printing

Bogotá, March 18, 2016 – Blaming the refusal of the government to sell it newsprint, the independent Venezuelan daily El Carabobeño printed its final edition on Thursday, according to news reports. The newspaper has published for 82 years and was one of the few independent media outlets in Valencia, the capital of Carabobo state.

Based in the western city of Valencia, El Carabobeño often ran stories critical of the regional and national governments. For the past year, the state company that controls the sales and distribution of most newsprint in Venezuela refused to sell to El Carabobeño and it finally ran out of paper on Thursday, Carolina González, El Carabobeño editor, told CPJ.

“The government went after us due to our editorial position,” González said in a telephone interview. “We hope this is not definitive.”

A front-page editorial of the last print edition said: “Today we say goodbye. But we will be back.”

“The closure of El Carabobeño is yet another blow to freedom of expression and to the right of Venezuelans to be informed,” Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas, said from New York. “We urge the administration of President Nicolás Maduro to allow independent newspapers to buy newsprint and put an end to its multiple tactics aimed at silencing dissent.”

González said El Carabobeño will continue to publish its daily Internet edition and to report stories via its online radio station. However, she said the newspaper will lose some of its impact because many Venezuelans still like to read news on paper rather than on computer screens or mobile phones.

Venezuela’s newsprint shortage began about three years ago. The country imports its newsprint from Canada and the U.S., but due to government currency controls, it can take many months for newspaper companies to secure the dollars required to buy newsprint. Over the past year, the government has refused to sell dollars or newsprint to El Carabobeño, according to news reports.

Until recently, most Venezuelan newspapers purchased newsprint from several import companies. But in 2013 Maduro’s socialist government moved to centralize imports through a state-run enterprise called Alfredo Maneiro Editorial Corporation (CEAM, according to its initials in Spanish). Since then, many independent newspaper owners have complained that CEAM refuses to sell them newsprint.

CEAM “acts like a censor to ensure that media organizations bow their heads before the government’s lies,” said Tineda Guía, president of Venezuela’s National Journalists Association, in a statement.

Neither CEAM nor the Ministry of Communications responded to CPJ’s requests for comment.

Since 2013, eight regional dailies have stopped printing due to these shortages, including three that closed during the first three months of this year, according to the Caracas-based, free-speech group Espacio Público (Public Space). The group said that 85 other newspapers in Venezuela could also be threatened due to the shortage.

Some daily newspapers, like Caracas-based Tal Cual and Correo del Caroní, based in the industrial city of Ciudad Guayana, have switched to weekly print editions due to the newsprint shortage.

To keep printing, González told CPJ that El Carabobeño had reduced the number of pages in its edition and had switched from a broadsheet to a tabloid format. González said the newspaper had purchased newsprint on the black market, at a cost, she said, of 10 times the normal price, but that this had become too expensive.

El Carabobeño often published hard-hitting stories about alleged government corruption and mismanagement. It recently reported on the construction of a prison that has taken 10 years and has yet to be completed, the contaminated water supply in Valencia, and the government’s purchase, for $75 million, of a fishing boat that was never used and is now being dismantled.

The newspaper received no government advertising, while its base of private advertising had been reduced to about 10 companies, González said. Its staff has been reduced from about 500 to 266 employees over the past year. González said the newspaper’s future is uncertain now that the newspaper has switched to an online format.

CPJ research shows that under Maduro, authorities have used a variety of tactics to restrict independent media. Earlier this month, the editor of Correo del Caroní was sentenced to four years in prison on a criminal defamation charge. CPJ has documented how the few independent outlets that survive face constant challenges, including government lawsuits, lack of access to government sources, advertisers’ withdrawal, and newsprint shortages.