Even though the new director, Jesús Abreu Anselmi, assured the public that he would keep the newspaper’s editorial line intact, mounting censorship has proved otherwise. Within three weeks, the 105-year-old newspaper began a purge, putting any purported independence in doubt.
The Search for “Balance”
On Sunday, El Universal released an article on the third PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) convention. However, the headline for this article was “The PSUV III convention strengthened Nicolás Maduro’s leadership” [emphasis added], and it lacked a byline.
The PanAm Post has learned that the article’s author opposed the late change of headline, because it strayed from the content. The author then demanded that the article be released without his name attached.
The newspaper’s cartoonist, Rayma Suprani, was also censored on the same day. After the meeting between Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his Colombian counterpart, Juan Manuel Santos, Rayma released a cartoon that criticized the devolution of their relationship, and called it a comedy. El Universal‘s director barred its release, and went with an old one instead.
Esta es la caricatura de hoy que me fue censurada en El Universal. Favor RT. Gracias pic.twitter.com/wg91ctaykw
— Rayma (@raymacaricatura) August 3, 2014
The PanAm Post had the opportunity to speak with one of El Universal’s staff journalists, whose identity must remain anonymous for security reasons.
“In the section where I work, we have noticed strong changes. From the first week after [the newspaper’s] sale, we started to receive specific instructions for our articles. For example, we had to highlight the ‘positive’ aspects of the city, and write articles that were more ‘balanced.’ In this regard, the new directors started to force us to always search for the official figures, and to contact the government officials first. If we can’t get in touch with them, we then have to include inside the article an extensive explanation on how we couldn’t get the ‘official’ side of the story.”
The journalist also describes how priorities have changed. The articles that raise awareness of crime, for example, aren’t as important anymore.
“In the case of the crime section, certain articles that were once important no longer have priority to appear on the front page. For example, three weeks ago, there was a shooting at a party; four people were killed, and 30 people were injured. Before the sale, that article could have been considered a front-section piece. However, now the new directors view it to as unimportant.”
Beyond the censorship, journalists must now praise the government’s work alongside any problems they identify, “to keep the balance.”
“If an article talks about the uncollected garbage in Caracas, it also has to mention the recent remodeling the city council did, and how everything turned out to be beautiful. Journalists have to mention government officials, and how they are working to solve the problem, even if the article was supposed to denounce a problem in the first place.”
In a meeting with the heads of the union from El Universal, journalists were told that the newspaper would go through a “drastic makeover. In other words, the newspaper that was once considered extreme right-wing, would move to the center, at the request of its new director,” the journalist says.
Given the “delicate” situation that independent media outlets are going through in Venezuela, journalists in El Universal are still waiting to see how the editorial change flows: “In Venezuela, it’s not that easy to resign; there are not that many options to go to if you are a journalist who’s not aligned with the government,” the journalist laments.
Mainstays Fall by the Wayside
Lawyer and criminologist Luis Izquiel was the first columnist to be censored by El Universal. The new director informed Izquiel that his article on the links between drug trafficking and members of the Chavista regime wasn’t going to be released.
Mi artículo del domingo en El Universal fue censurado por el nuevo director. Esto es inaceptable para mi. Hasta hoy escribí en El Universal
— luis izquiel (@luisizquiel) July 21, 2014
Columnist Axel Capriles was also let go. Via Twitter, Axel Capriles explained the paper’s recent decision: “After 42 years writing for the Venezuelan press, and always against those in power, this is the first time I have been censored.” Capriles, with El Universal since 1978, informed his followers that he will no longer write for the newspaper.
“We regret to inform you that due to editorial changes,” the letter he received reads, “we won’t be able to offer a place for the publication of your articles.”
“The newspaper, now Chavista … started the censorship,” Capriles affirmed.
Other columnists have felt the brunt of the newspaper’s new editorial line. Former columnist with the PanAm Post and academic director of CEDICE — a libertarian think tank in Venezuela — Trino Márquez, is now out of the picture.
— Trino Márquez (@trinomarquezc) August 1, 2014
As a sign of solidarity for the more than 30 columnists and journalists who have been dismissed from the newspaper, prominent journalist and columnist Marta Colomina immediately resigned. Colomina explained her decision yesterday:
“I recognize El Universal‘s right to reorganize its news and opinion structure, but all of the people that have been dismissed happen to be critical towards the regime.”
The long list includes columnists Orián Brito, an opposition representative in parliament, Ismael García, and Carlos Blanco. Their articles had one thing in common: all of them talked about Venezuela’s violations of free speech, government corruption, and lack of democracy.