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Venezuela's El Universal criticized for being tamed by mystery new owners

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The headquarters of El Universal in Caracas. The daily, which had a reputation for being critical of the government, was sold in July 2014. (Reuters/Jorge Silva)

To illustrate how the once-critical Caracas daily El Universal has cozied up to Venezuela's socialist government in the wake of its sale in July, it helps to examine the newspaper's coverage of the current oil price plunge.

The more than 40 percent drop in the price of Venezuelan crude is terrible news for the government, which depends on petroleum for 96 percent of its export income and already faces food shortages and galloping inflation. But journalists covering the oil beat have been told to take the sting out of their stories.

Venezuela's oil has fallen from $96 to slightly under $60 since the start of the year. But, instead of stating that the price of a barrel of Venezuelan oil "fell" to, say, $57, reporters are supposed to write that the price "settled" at $57, said Mayela Armas, an economics reporter who joined the newspaper 15 years ago.

"We fight with our editors over these issues every day," a tearful Armas told CPJ. "This amounts to censorship."

El Universal, which was founded in 1909 and still fields the largest reporting staff of any Venezuelan newspaper, used to be fiercely critical of President Nicolás Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, who died of cancer last year. Its economics coverage often stood out with stories spotlighting the government's mismanagement of the energy sector, its inability to rein-in inflation, and corruption within state-run companies.

But since the sale of El Universal to a mysterious business group, most of the newspaper's critical news columnists have been jettisoned. EUTV, El Universal's fledgling Web-based TV station that provided independent reporting, has been shut down. Several journalists, including three of the paper's eight economics reporters, have resigned after complaining about censorship by their editors. On September 17, Rayma Suprani, El Universal's award-winning cartoonist, says she was fired for a drawing criticizing the way the government handled several public health crises.

"There is now a list of untouchable issues," a veteran El Universal reporter, who asked to remain anonymous, told CPJ. "The paper has become really boring."

The newspaper has not responded to a CPJ request for comment about the resignations and firings.

The front page, in particular, has become a megaphone for the government. During a CPJ visit to Venezuela in early December, above-the-fold stories often came from interviews with government ministers.

While El Universal does not disclose circulation figures, since the July sale the return rate for unsold newspapers has jumped from 12 percent to about 25 percent, according to Eugenio Martínez, who covers elections for the newspaper. He added that El Universal has lost about 250,000 Twitter followers--although it still has more than 3 million.

El Universal is the third private media company in Venezuela that has been sold over the past two years. The TV station Globovisión and the media conglomerate Cadena Capriles which publishes the Últimas Noticias newspaper, were purchased by businessmen rumored to have close ties to the government and, like El Universal, have softened their coverage of the Maduro administration.

As a result, independent news media performing a vigorous government watchdog role are getting much harder to find in Venezuela, according to Mariengracia Chirinos of the Caracas-based Institute for Press and Society. She told CPJ that critical media have dwindled to the Caracas dailies El Nacional and Tal Cual, a few regional outlets, and several upstart websites.

But she and other analysts told CPJ that the sale of El Universal was, perhaps, inevitable. Longtime publisher Andrés Mata Osorio, the grandson of the newspaper's founder, moved to New York in the early 2000s and kept watch over the newspaper through video conferences and infrequent visits to Caracas.

Under the Chávez and Maduro administrations, El Universal has faced a campaign of government harassment, including a boycott of state advertising, verbal assaults from officials, and currency restrictions making it difficult to import newsprint. Private sector advertising also dried up amid the nationalization of many companies and Venezuela's economic crisis. El Universal now publishes just 16 pages, less than one-quarter of its previous size.

Epalisticia, a Spanish private equity firm formed this year and whose investors remain a mystery, purchased the newspaper. José Luis Basanta, who represents the group, told Bloomberg that a small group of investors with experience in the media, oil and real estate industries paid less than $22 million for El Universal. Basanta told Bloomberg that a contract prevents him from disclosing the group's identity. Despite the dismal economic scenario for news outlets in Venezuela, Basanta told Bloomberg that the group was betting on an eventual political transition that would ease restrictions on media companies.

But Carlos Correa, director of the Caracas free-speech organization Espacio Público, insisted there was little economic rationale for purchasing the paper. He speculated that the new owners may be trying to win favorable treatment from the Maduro administration for their other business interests by flipping the editorial position of El Universal from critical to pro-government.

Immediately after the sale, El Universal's new president, Venezuelan businessman Jesus Abreu Anselmi, insisted that the editorial line would not undergo major changes. "Free expression is an essential value" Abreu said in an interview in the paper. "We will be critical of the government as well as anything else that must be criticized."

But except for a few remaining critical columnists, like Nelson Bocaranda, and occasional stories buried inside the paper, El Universal has shied away from hard-hitting coverage, according to several of its reporters. Several El Universal journalists told CPJ that censorship by editors and self-censorship by reporters have become the norm.

Martínez described a meeting with Abreu in which he was told not to report on public opinion polls that reflect badly on the Maduro government. He told CPJ that stories and headlines are often toned down by editors after journalists have left the building.

Juan Francisco Alonso, El Universal's representative to Venezuela's journalists union, said he believes the new owners have close ties to Diosdado Cabello, who is president of the National Assembly and is often described as Venezuela's second most powerful government official after Maduro. Alonso told CPJ that reporters have been repeatedly warned off by their editors from writing anything controversial about Cabello.

Neither Abreu nor Elides Rojas, El Universal's editor-in-chief, responded to telephone calls and e-mails from CPJ requesting comment.

Alonso, who joined El Universal in 2002, said he feels sad and frustrated. Some sources no longer return his calls because they do not believe the newspaper will use the information, he said. Still, Alonso refuses to resign, saying he does not want to make it any easier for his editors to suppress independent reporting.

Instead, he tries to work around them. For example, he said there is less vigilance of the newspaper's website where critical stories sometimes appear. He added that damning information about the government that would likely be cut from headlines or opening paragraphs can sometimes be worked into the middle or the bottom of stories.

"I have never experienced censorship before and I'm not really sure how to handle it," Alonso said. "But I am learning."

UPDATE: The text has been corrected to reflect that Juan Francisco Alonso joined El Universal in 2002.

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