With sale, Venezuela’s last opposition news outlet may be neutralized

April 13, 2013

In his 14-year-rule, President Hugo Chavez zeroed in on the country’s four major private television news outlets, shutting down one and co-opting two others to neutralize critical coverage of his self-styled revolutionary government.

One network, Globovision, has been left standing, surviving Chavez, who died last month. But as Venezuela prepares for a presidential election Sunday that Chavez’s handpicked successor is expected to win, it appears that Globovision’s days as a freewheeling, highly critical opponent of the government are numbered.

And if Globovision softens its coverage, as media analysts and prominent journalists here expect, Venezuela’s all-powerful government will have a lock on all broadcast media of any importance. That will boost the power of Nicolas Maduro, the interim president, if he wins the vote and embarks on a six-year term he says will be a continuation of his old boss’s rule.

“This is the last station with a strongly critical tone in Venezuela,” said Carlos Lauria, who monitors Latin America for the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based press-freedom watchdog. “If what is being announced comes to pass, then we would have a broadcast spectrum inundated with voices close to officialdom. And that will hurt audiences, who will have fewer options. Distinct, opposing voices feed democracy.”

The owner with controlling stock in the 24-hour news station, Guillermo Zuloaga, said he will sell Globovision after the election to Juan Domingo Cordero, an executive at the insurer La Vitalicia who political analysts say has close ties to the government. In a letter to employees released last month, Zuloaga said a years-long campaign by the government to paralyze Globovision is slowly strangling the station.

“We are unviable economically, because our earnings do not cover our costs,” said Zuloaga, who fled the country in 2010 to escape a series of charges. “We are unviable politically because we are in a completely polarized country and on the side that’s counter to an all-powerful government that wants to see us fail.”

Globovision’s future appears foretold by the likelihood that Maduro will win Sunday and continue Chavez’s policies, a pillar of which has been to undermine independent reporting. But the station also has faced recent regulatory troubles that have left executives there wondering about its solvency.

In February, the government excluded Globovision from joining 11 stations switching from analog to digital transmission — which could be a death blow once analog transmissions are phased out nationwide. Globovision also faces the 2015 expiration of its license, and the station’s directors remember how another network critical of Chavez, RCTV, was shuttered after the government denied renewal of its broadcast license in 2007.

“If independent journalism is bothersome in a democracy,” said Globovision director Maria Fernanda Flores, “imagine what it’s like for the strange government that was Chavez’s government and that now belongs to his heirs.”

Political analysts and prominent personalities at Globovision say the station’s prospective buyer wouldn’t be about to finalize a deal if he were not sure the station would be allowed to keep operating.And in Venezuela, it has become clear to TV executives that stations must blunt criticism of the government to operate unfettered.

“You don’t have to be too smart to discern that you wouldn’t acquire a media outlet, which means costs in the millions of dollars, if you are not certain the license is going to be renewed,” said Roberto Giusti, an investigative reporter who hosts a political analysis show called “33 Degrees.” “Of course, intuition tells you there is some deal between the new owners and the government to ensure Globovision’s broadcasts continue.”

Cordero did not return e-mails and telephone calls seeking comment, and officials at the Information Ministry also did not return calls. The government has not concealed its belief that the Globovision of today may soon disappear.

“They sold that television station because they know they are going to lose the elections and they’ll leave the country,” Maduro said publicly last week. “And surely the doors of that station will open themselves to true democracy, to respecting the people.”

Speaking to el Socialista newspaper, Marco Hernandez, president of the pro-government group Journalists for Truth, recently said it was Zuloaga who should be blamed for the station’s troubles.

“The truth is that it was Zuloaga, unbalanced by his anti-Chavez obsession, who has led Globovision to violate all ethical concepts and reject balanced newsgathering,” Hernandez said.

Out in the streets of the capital, many TV viewers said they were closely following the developments and believed that Globovision’s days as an outlet for criticism were numbered.

“For us, it means that a window that we had is being closed,” said Eslovania Ramos, 58, a lawyer opposed to the government. “The other channels belong to the state or they are private ones that are on their knees and don’t dare go against the state.”

The government’s antagonism toward Globovision has roots in a 2002 coup that briefly toppled Chavez.

Globovision, along with other private TV outlets, promoted protests in the days before the overthrow and celebrated Chavez’s ouster. And then Globovision blacked out coverage of a popular uprising that reinstalled Chavez to the presidency.

But the government never leveled charges against Globovision executives and never offered detailed proof that they were behind plots to destabilize the government and assassinate Chavez, as the late president frequently alleged.

Instead, Globovision has been punished in myriad other ways. Cameramen are roughed up in the street, and one well-known presenter was doused with urine. Reporters are barred from government news conferences and public buildings.

The government has also opened 10 separate investigations into violations of vaguely worded media laws. Globovision was forced to pay a $2.2 million fine for coverage of a 2011 prison riot that regulators said promoted a climate of “hatred and intolerance.”

The scorn heaped on Globovision — through a state media apparatus that includes half a dozen TV stations — appears to have had an effect on many government supporters.

“They should be off the air,” said Richard Lopez, 42, a handyman interviewed at a Maduro rally. “If a station does not want to be with the government or will never support the government and instead attacks the government because it’s convenient for them, well, it’s better that they be taken off.”

At the station this past week, reporters and production crews focused on election coverage.

But the post-election landscape — and what it could mean for Globovision — was clearly on the minds of the young journalists who are the core of the station’s 500-member workforce.

“If Maduro wins, I’m not going to be here with some emissary of the government who comes here to give orders and say what kind of journalism we’ll do,” said Fernando Tineo, an investigative reporter who has been at the station three years. “I know what kind of journalism needs to be done: the journalism I learned in school.”

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