Venezuela's oldest newspaper, El Universal, has been having a difficult time as of late. Like newspapers the world over, it faces increasing competition from new media, and advertising revenue has been declining. But in Venezuela, that's only part of the problem. The government has been restricting access to newsprint, forcing newspapers like El Universal to shrink dramatically.
To add insult to injury, journalists are increasingly hounded by a government that does not hide its contempt for independent thinking. Faced with this scenario, El Universal's owners must have been relieved to receive an offer to purchase the newspaper last week, reported at an astonishing $100 million. The purchasers are a supposedly Spanish business group with a shady past, according to a prominent blogger.
Few in Venezuela doubt that the buyers are aligned with the government. If this is confirmed, the rescue of the paper's owners from financial ruin could actually entail a significant blow to freedom of expression.
Most Venezuelans get their news from three sources: TV, radio, and newspapers. The government has been relentlessly attacking all three. The pressure applied to El Universal follows a pattern that the authorities have resorted to often in recent years: choking media companies financially until the owners are forced to sell to someone who does the government's bidding.
This was the modus operandi with Globovisión, an independent all-news TV channel. Until last year, Globovisión had been fiercely anti-government. Government fines mounted. Officials threatened owners and journalists with jail. And finally the owners were forced to sell to a chavista business group. Since then, independent-minded journalists at the broadcaster have either resigned or been fired.
The same happened with Venezuela's most widely read newspaper, the afternoon tabloid Últimas Noticias. Since its purchase by a chavista group, many key players in its award-winning staff have resigned to protest the censorship imposed on them by their editors.
Self-censorship is another prominent side of the equation. After the government yanked several radio stations and one large TV channel (RCTV) off the air, Venezuela's remaining private TV and radio broadcasters began looking carefully at what they said. Many of those I've spoken to inside these stations confirm that self-censorship is a reality. Stories about the government are given more prominence, while stories critical of the government are either curtailed or not broadcast at all.
As for new media, it still does not have the reach to really make a dent in public opinion. Twitter and blogs play a prominent role, but they tend to reach people who are already convinced of their own positions. Furthermore, new media relies on traditional media sources to reproduce, comment, and expand the reach of stories. If traditional journalists are muzzled, stories will have a hard time getting out, and new media outlets will find it difficult to comment.
The future looks bleak. The Caracas daily El Nacional remains one of the few independent news outlets, but the paper is not in a solid financial situation. Rumors have been swirling about the paper's imminent sale to a pro-government buyer, but the owners have so far remained firm. One wonders how long this can last: A few months ago, the paper had to accept a donation of newsprint from sympathetic Colombian papers in order to keep publishing.
The model for Venezuela's leaders is Russia, where independent news media outlets have basically ceased to exist. Yet instead of imposing the model in one single blow, the end of press freedom in Venezuela has been a steady, uninterrupted process. As yet another media outlet falls prey to what the government calls "communicational hegemony," Venezuelans are left with few, if any, choices to keep themselves informed.
An old proverb says that the best way to boil a live frog is to dip it in water at room temperature and slowly raise the heat so that the frog doesn't realize the water is boiling. Like the frog, Venezuelans have yet to realize that the bubbles around them mean that the days of press freedom in their country are numbered.