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Storied Venezuelan newspaper sold as independent media comes increasingly under pressure

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CARACAS, Venezuela - One of Venezuela's oldest and most prestigious newspapers has been sold amid increasing government pressure on independent news media.

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 polarization 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 and its 850 employees.

On Friday, 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.

The last television station broadcasting criticism of the government, Globovision, was sold in 2013 after being fined $2 million for its coverage of a prison riot. Three local businessmen with no prior media experience bought the channel, which immediately stopped broadcasting opposition news conferences and rallies.

Meanwhile, the government has increased the number of state-run TV channels. The newspaper chain that includes Venezuela's most-read daily, Ultimas Noticias, was also sold last year and saw many of its prize-winning investigative reporters resign in dismay.

Government control of television news has gotten tighter since an opposition protest movement broke out in February. At the height of the protests, Maduro expelled CNN and the Colombian channel NTN24 because of their coverage, which it said was slanted and was fueling violence.

For now, freedom of expression watchdogs are waiting to see whether the Spanish buyers turn out to have government ties.

"If the result of the sale is that El Universal changes its tone to become a pro-government outlet, that's something that would really be a concern, because it's a newspaper that is providing a lot of criticism at a time that the broadcast (media) is dominated by official views," said Carlos Lauria, Americas director of the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists.

The union representing El Universal workers said that so far, management had not provided enough information to allay their doubts.

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Follow Hannah Dreier on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hannahdreier

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