A woman with her mouth covered stands before police holding a sign that reads, in English, “Freedom of expression / It's yours / Defend it.” (Alejandro Cegarra/AP)

Through 15 years of roiling social change, the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal has been a go-to source for readers looking for tough coverage and criticism of the political upheavals brought by Hugo Chávez, the late president.

So when reporters and editors came to work one day in July and learned that the paper had been sold by the family that had owned it for 105 years, they were anxious to know why. Yet there were no farewell speeches, no tearful goodbyes and certainly no chance to meet the new owners.

“Nothing like that,” said Juan Francisco Alonso, a reporter and union delegate. “It was total opacity.”

The anonymity of the new ownership group and a dearth of information about the sale have many Venezuelans fearing it is the latest major media company to fall to what they view as an insidious new way for the oil-rich government to neuter its critics.

After squeezing them into economic distress, it buys them out. With a little help from its friends.

Mariengracia Chirinos, a researcher with Caracas media watchdog group IPYS, said the pattern began to emerge last year after the sale of the television network Globovisión, which is popular with Venezuela’s opposition.

Under new ownership, the network purged its newsroom and stopped airing live speeches by opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who narrowly lost to Chávez successor Nicolás Maduro in April’s presidential race.

After Globovisión flipped, the same thing happened with another major news company and its popular daily paper, Últimas Noticias.

“In both cases, media companies that were critical of the government were sold to unknown investors, and that was followed by an editorial shift,” Chirinos said.

Commentators and columnists were dumped. Investigative reporting teams were disbanded. Headlines became sunnier even as the news about Venezuela’s economy and crime problems got worse.

Pulling strings

Critics see the hands of government allies pulling these strings with money earned through business ties to top officials.

It is by no means clear yet that this will be true for El Universal under its new ownership group, Epalisticia, a mysterious holding company registered in Spain last year with less than $6,000 in declared assets.

One of the biggest questions in the newsroom is why the company would want to buy El Universal at a time when Venezuela is facing acute shortages of paper products — including newsprint.

José Luis Basanta, a spokesman for the company, said the paper was acquired for less than $22 million, telling Bloomberg News that its owners were willing to ride out the country’s troubles with the expectation that the paper will make money again if political changes in Venezuela lead to a more favorable business climate.

“They are convinced this is going to happen,” said Basanta, describing the new owners as a group of wealthy international associates with as much as $1 billion to invest in media, energy and real estate. El Universal was their first purchase.

After the sale, Epalisticia installed a new president at the paper, Jesús Abreu Anselmi. He assured the staff that the paper’s editorial commitment to “impartiality” would not change and that the new owners had no connection to the Maduro government.

But the lack of transparency has been hardly reassuring for El Universal’s 800 or so employees, including its newsroom staff of 120.

Apprehensions about the new owners’ intentions boiled over last month when the reporters and editors issued a collective statement denouncing the “censorship” of an article about protesting steelworkers at the Sidor plant in Ciudad Guayana and their contract dispute with the government.

The statement said a correspondent’s article had been rewritten to convey only the Maduro administration’s version of events, giving readers the mistaken impression that the workers had reconciled with the government.

“We want to convey to the whole country, and especially the readers that have put their trust in us for decades, that we are worried about the changes in the editorial line since the sale,” the statement read.

Since the sale, nearly 30 editorial contributors have been told their columns won’t be continued. Fifteen others have resigned in protest, said Alonso.

A quick survey of El Universal’s recent coverage doesn’t indicate a dramatic change in content or tone. But there does appear to be a greater emphasis on sports and celebrity culture and noticeably less skepticism about new government announcements and initiatives.

Diverse media landscape

During his 14 years in power, Chávez clashed frequently with Venezuela’s private media companies, and he sent a chill through the country’s newsrooms when he revoked the broadcast license of the leading network, RCTV, in 2007. But Chávez also tolerated a broader degree of criticism, and Venezuela’s media landscape was far more diverse during the earlier phases of his presidency.

Today, that landscape is cluttered with ruined companies and revoked licenses. While state-run news channels and publications favorable to the government proliferate, observers say, privately controlled media companies are being hammered by new regulations, lawsuits and the weight of Venezuela’s sinking economy.

El Universal’s former owner, Andrés Mata, left Venezuela for New York a decade ago, said Alonso, the union representative. The paper had been losing money for several years, but Mata has said nothing to the employees about why he sold.

Even longtime senior managers were left in the dark about the sale and were incredulous when it happened. Though most of El Universal’s reporters and editors remain in their jobs, the newsroom is tense, according to staff members reached by phone, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.