Caracas: One of Venezuela`s oldest and most prestigious newspapers has been sold amid increasing government pressure on the country`s press.
The editor in chief of Caracas-based El Universal, Elides Rojas, confirmed that a group of Spanish investors had bought the broadsheet from the family that has run the paper since it was founded 104 years ago.
While neutral reporting in Venezuela is hard to come by after 15 years of polarisation over socialist rule, El Universal has stuck closer than most to the ideal of fact-based, investigative reporting amid a crackdown on media outlets that, like it, have been fiercely critical of the government.
Rojas acknowledged apprehension in the newsroom about whether the paper will follow in the steps of other recently sold news media outlets that have softened their editorial line, but said he had been assured that the paper`s editorial independence would not be compromised.
Partly driving those concerns was the appointment of Jesus Abreu, a former bank manager who is the brother of the famed director of Venezuela`s government-funded system of youth orchestras, to lead the paper.
Yesterday, El Universal employees gathered for a meeting with their new manager. Reporters say Abreu told them that they had been bought by the Spanish company Epalisticia, but deflected most questions about the new owners. After the meeting, reporters hurried to look the company up, but found a scant digital footprint.
President Nicolas Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez have driven most independent journalism from airwaves, using fines and the revocation of licenses to silence critical voices.
Meanwhile, a newsprint shortage combined with government harassment of journalists and media it accuses of plotting its overthrow has made the task of running a Venezuelan newspaper increasingly unappealing. Rumours have been circulating for more than a year that the Mata family, which has run the broadsheet since its founding in 1909, were looking to sell.
In May, El Universal announced that it would cut the size of its daily editions because of the newsprint shortage. The paper now publishes 16 pages a day, down from 24. Circulation has dropped, and newsstands almost immediately sell out of what copies are available.
In the past year, more than a dozen Venezuelan papers have closed or reduced their print editions because of a lack of dollars to buy newsprint. Venezuela`s government has restricted access to foreign currency for 11 years.