It’s an odd feeling, being silenced. On the Fourth of July, I heard that El Universal, Venezuela’s century-old newspaper, and among the oldest in Latin America, had been sold to a recently registered, anonymous Spanish corporation. Against a backdrop of fireworks bursting over Lake Michigan, I sat at my computer and started copying from its website into Word documents two years’ worth of weekly opinion columns I had written for the paper. I knew a flood was coming — I had seen it happen before. My laptop would be my pieces’ ark.
Sure enough, last week, I received the following notification by email: “Hello and good afternoon, I hope you are well. We’re sorry to inform you that, due to editorial restructuring, there has been a series of adjustments and we will no longer be able to publish your work. Many thanks.”
The wording was perfect. My articles could no longer be published not because of their quality or anything to do with their content, but by virtue of being mine. Apparently I had called out the government — for mismanaging the electric grid, borrowing recklessly from China, imprisoning political opponents — one too many times.
Dozens of other columnists at the paper received similar notices recently. The contributions of others, including the most celebrated cartoonist in the country, have been censored or edited without notice. Some of those spared have resigned in protest.
El Universal is only the most recent marquee publication to be undone in this fashion since the death of President Hugo Chávez last year. Other casualties include the once-vocal pro-opposition television channel Globovisión and Cadena Capriles, the country’s largest newspaper conglomerate (which was previously owned by relatives of the opposition leader Henrique Capriles).
Only one of Venezuela’s three big independent newspapers, El Nacional, remains. And for over a year openly critical coverage of the regime has been absent from TV or radio stations.
Censorship is nothing new in Venezuela, but it is taking novel, more covert, forms under Mr. Chávez’s lackluster replacement, Nicolás Maduro. Mr. Maduro hasn’t made much headway against the problems he inherited from his predecessor: soaring inflation, supply shortages, crumbling infrastructure and criminality. And lacking Mr. Chávez’s charisma and talent for masking hard realities with populist promises, he has been leaning hard on the media instead: Censorship has gone from piecemeal to systematic. And like the devil, it is trying to convince the world that it doesn’t exist.
Back in 2007, when Mr. Chávez refused to renew the broadcasting license of Radio Caracas Television, which had supported an ephemeral coup against him in 2002, the move was widely condemned, and precipitated paralyzing protests on the streets of Caracas. From that backlash, the government learned the virtues of subtlety. And it discovered that the best way to disguise state suppression of the media was to hand the job over to the free market. Setting socialist rhetoric aside, the government would simply rely on some private-sector leaders — its friends flush with petrodollars — to buy the independent press.
Demise then tends to come in three steps. First, the media outlets are regulated so as to become economically uncompetitive: a newspaper, for example, might be denied a favorable exchange rate for importing printing paper; a broadcaster might regularly be hit with fines on spurious charges of libel or indecency.
Second, once the business starts failing, a dummy corporation, sometimes owned anonymously, mysteriously appears and offers to buy it out, even generously.
Third, despite initially assuring that the editorial line will remain unchanged, the new management soon begins to shed staff, likewise shifting coverage until its message becomes all but indistinguishable from the Panglossian views of the ruling party.
It’s a clever strategy. If the government and its supporters are ever accused of censorship, they can counter that a robust percentage of the Venezuelan media industry is independent and privately owned. Even if those particular owners display remarkably little concern for maintaining their customer base or turning a profit.
The end result is an increasingly desolate media landscape: Freedom House recently rated the press in Venezuela as being among the least free in the world, ranking it 171 out of 197 countries, below Singapore, Myanmar and Zimbabwe. (In 2002, it was ranked 86, and in 1992 it was called “free.”)
Soon, there may be no free media in Venezuela at all.
For over a century the family-owned El Universal managed to remain independent through military coups, economic depressions, natural disasters, even a socialist revolution. But not under Mr. Maduro. For Mr. Chávez, suppressing the independent media had been a personal thing: He would fixate on a specific outfit he felt had slighted him and stalk it like prey. For Mr. Maduro censorship is state policy — dispassionate, sweeping and unrelenting.
Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez, a former columnist at El Universal, is a Chicago-based geopolitical-risk consultant.