Last anti-Chavez TV station to be sold

The last remaining television station critical of Venezuela's government is being sold to an insurance company owner who is apparently friendly with the ruling socialists, its owners announced Monday, following an unrelenting official campaign to financially strangle the broadcaster through regulatory pressure.

The announcement, which civil liberties advocates called a crushing blow to press freedom, comes a month ahead of crucial elections to replace Hugo Chavez, with the opposition candidate accusing the late president's political heirs of multiple violations of the constitution, and repeated lying, to seek unfair advantage.

The editorial line of Globovision is expected to change under new management, employees told The Associated Press.

Many journalists on the staff of 450 sobbed when informed of the sale, certain some would lose their jobs for openly confronting the government.

"We are economically unviable because our income doesn't cover our expenses. We can't even raise salaries enough to compensate for inflation," owner Guillermo Zuloaga wrote in a letter to employees.

Politically, the station is unviable because "we are in a completely polarized country on the opposite end of an all-powerful government that wants to see us fail," he added. Third, Globovision's license expires two years from now under a recent government rule change.

The sale will wait until April 14 elections, which Chavez's hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, is highly favored to win. But there is fear that journalists at the channel could exercise self-censorship, a common phenomenon under the Chavistas.

The feared disappearance of Globovision's independent voice would strengthen the hand of a government that began showing increasing intolerance for dissent even before Chavez died after a nearly two-year bout with cancer.

Zuloaga informed staff of the planned sale at a meeting Monday, naming the buyer as Juan Domingo Cordero, president of the insurance company La Vitalicia.

One employee told the AP that Cordero is friendly with government officials such as National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job.

Cordero did not respond to AP attempts for comment, including a visit to his Caracas office, where his assistant said he was in a meeting.

Chavez supporters were heartened by the news.

"We don't deserve a channel like Globovision. They lie, deceive, can never say anything good about the revolution," said Luis Pina, an unemployed 29-year-old who had attended a rally Monday to celebrate Maduro's formal registration for the election.

Under constant state pressure for alleged violations of media laws passed under Chavez, Globovision has been forced to pay millions of dollars in fines while its viewership on the public spectrum was reduced to just two cities: Caracas and Valencia.

In the meeting with employees, Zuloaga said that "politically, economically and legally" Globovision was no longer a viable business, in part because it had no access to dollars at preferential rates to buy equipment, as Cordero's business does, the employee said.

The employee said the buyers had presented themselves as politically neutral.

"A lot of journalists were crying and surely more than one of them will have to go," he said.

The state telecommunications agency has repeatedly sanctioned Globovision and threatened to shut it down, with eight administrative cases currently pending against it that could have led to additional fines and even closure orders.

In June, it was fined $2.2 million for running supposedly incendiary reports on a 2011 prison riot.

In the most recent case, it was accused of sowing panic for running spots challenging the constitutionality of the government's decision to postpone the swearing in of Chavez, which was supposed to have occurred Jan. 10, due to the cancer that ultimately killed him.

Globovision also faces possible sanctions for alleged tax evasion. And it was accused by the Chavez government of backing a 2002 attempt to overthrow him.

The Americas director of Human Rights Watch, Jose Miguel Vivanco, said the sale caps a disturbing trend.

"After years of going after its critics, the government of Venezuela has created an environment in which journalists weigh the consequences of what they say for fear of suffering reprisals in the form of abusive or arbitrary state action," he said via email.

"If the channel changes its editorial line after this sale, Venezuelans will have even more limited information in the coming weeks before the elections," Vivanco added.

In print, two major national newspapers, El Nacional and El Universal, remain highly critical of the government, but in the all-important television sector Globovision was that last major critical voice. Four private channels exist in Venezuela, all ostensibly neutral, while the government has four state-run channels and the regional news network Telesur.

"This is the only broadcast media in the country that informs us accurately," said Noral Villereal, a 53-year-old insurance broker, about Globovision. "I think we're going to be left without any kind of trustworthy news."

Opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in October elections, is already at a severe disadvantage in the April 14 vote. The government has the national treasury of an oil-rich nation at its disposal and takes over the public airwaves at will.

The Zuloaga family owns 80 percent of Globovision. The other 20 percent belonged to a banker but was expropriated years ago by Chavez. Zuloaga had been living outside of Venezuela since 2010 after a court ordered his arrest for allegedly illegally storing 24 automobiles at one of his homes.

It had become the lone opposition channel that year after RCTV was forced off cable and satellite networks. Its public airwaves license had been stripped three years earlier.

Carlos Lauria of the Committee to Protect Journalist said the slow strangling of Globovision followed a pattern nationally.

"Over the last 14 years the Venezuelan press has been gradually weakened and debilitated by an array of laws, restrictions, regulatory measures and judicial decisions that have really weakened the ability of the private media to report the news without official interference," he said.

---

Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez and Vivian Sequera contributed to this report.

---

Frank Bajak on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fbajak