The Hijacking of a Venezuelan Newspaper

Under President Nicolas Maduro, the free press in Venezuela has become an endangered species.
Speak with one voice and say almost nothing.                                    

Finding reliable information in Venezuela these days can be a challenge. Given the Bolivarian Republic's bilious politics, many privately owned media are openly tendentious, while most others either behave like megaphones for government glories or look the other way.

So it was with more than a little trepidation that this nation of 29 million learned last month that El Universal, a battlesome, century-old daily and one of the country's most respected independent voices, had changed hands.

On the face of it, this was a business deal. The financially ailing Caracas publication, which had winnowed down to two eight-page sections, sold out to Spanish investors with deeper pockets. In fact, this was an ambush followed by a hijacking.

El Universal was sold to an obscure startup, Epalisticia, registered last year in Spain as a real estate broker and builder. Months later, the business changed its shingle to media acquisitions and boasted a potential $1 billion war chest. The paper trail got murky, but behind El Universal's woes was the invisible hand of President Nicolas Maduro, the accident-prone heir to the late Hugo Chavez. Unfortunately, Maduro has all the airs but none of the skills of his Machiavellian predecessor, and much thinner skin. He has answered street demonstrators with tear gas and truncheons, and media critics with hostile takeovers.

Chavez, too, had little stomach for criticism but mostly avoided outright confrontation. Like most self-respecting 21st-century autocrats, he preferred gaming democracy to squashing it. Under Chavez, elections were free and mostly fair, as long the government gerrymandered electoral districts. Courts functioned, albeit under the gavel of Chavista benches. The legislature legislated, if only as an official wind chamber.

Chavismo found a following beyond Venezuela. In Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua, populist caudillos won elections then parlayed their majorities into power grabs, stacking courts, suing critics they couldn't silence and rewriting constitutions. None of them played the press like Chavez, who was careful to preserve the appearance of democracy and freedom of expression as part of Chavismo's claim to legitimacy.

Instead of outright censorship, Chavez leaned on media owners with lawsuits and exorbitant fines for offenses real and imaginary. Broadcasters who wouldn't buckle were unplugged. In a single flourish, Chavez canceled licenses for 34 regional radio stations, and in 2007, declined to renew the operating concession for RCTV, the country's biggest broadcaster.

At the same time, he built a web of loyalist media to keep the companeros abreast of the march toward 21st-century socialism. The Venezuelan government currently owns 10 television broadcasters and at least 100 radio stations. And when the muse visited the Palacio Miraflores, Chavez would take over the electromagnetic spectrum to report firsthand on the revolution, sometimes for hours at a time.

Not to be outdone, Maduro in his first 12 months has conducted 147 mandatory broadcasts, speaking for a total of 193 hours. That's eight solid days of gab. He also appears to have escalated Chavez's assault on the fourth estate. Purportedly to save hard currency, Maduro cut back on imported newsprint, forcing broadsheets like El Universal to slash sections and staff before selling out.

Two other key media properties, the cable station Globovision and print empire Cadena Capriles, were also starved and forced to sell on Maduro's watch. Though the Miraflores was not involved in either transaction, the coverage of both groups has since grown decidedly warmer to Chavismo. El Universal editor Elides Rojas said he'll walk if the Boligarchs meddle in the newsroom.

Not that the spotlight has always flattered Maduro. In a little over a year, the former bus driver has gone from Chavez's anointed successor to bumbler in chief, careening from one eccentric decree to the next, all embarrassingly aired on prime time.

To tame inflation, Maduro announced price controls and sent consumers scrambling for vanishing store-bought goods from toilet paper to snakebite serum. Underinvestment in the power grid has made the rolling blackout as familiar as breakfast arepas and red berets. All the better for Caracas's busy bandits, who have turned the capital's streets into some of the world's bloodiest. Maduro's solution: ban crime reporting.

Crime, scarcity and waste were all failings of Chavez's 14-year rule. But with his charm and stage presence, the Comandante made the sacrifice seem worth it. Now Venezuelans might prefer the test pattern.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.