Media buyouts point to new tactics in Venezuela

Back-to-back buyouts of major media properties in Venezuela over the past month appear to have ushered in a new phase in the leftist government's long struggle to bring to heel an independent press, analysts say.

Instead of the all-out confrontation that characterized relations with the media under the late Hugo Chavez, his successors have opted for a behind-the-scenes approach to managing press coverage, they say.

A falling domino that caught many here by surprise was Cadena Capriles, publisher of the country's largest circulation newspaper, which was sold earlier this week to unidentified buyers.

Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader who is challenging the outcome of April 14 presidential election, is distantly related to the group's owners but has no stake in the company.

The Cadena Capriles sale followed the buyout earlier in May of the last television news channel aligned with the opposition, Globovision, by a group of investors reportedly connected to Chavistas.

Analysts say the sales have left President Nicolas Maduro, who already sits astride an expanding state-run media empire, with greater leverage than ever to twist arms to gain favorable coverage from Venezuela's private media.

Maduro's enhanced clout is "expressed not so much in terms of sanctions against the media, but in close door meetings among the political powers to assure more pleasing coverage," said communications expert Andres Canizalez.

Indeed, Maduro met last month with the owners of media still in private hands, urging them to adopt a less confrontational tone.

A month earlier, after narrowly winning a bitterly contested election to replace the late Hugo Chavez, he had warned them to take stock of their position.

"It is the hour of definition," he said in nationally broadcast remarks. "I call on the communications media to be sensible. To Venevision, Televen, all the media, define who you are with: with the fatherland? ... Or are you going to go back to the side of fascism?"

Although buyouts and withdrawals of broadcast licenses have left the government well short of complete control of the media, it is pushing its editorial lines in private talks, analysts say.

"The government does not exclude any means to achieve hegemony," said communications expert Antonio Pasquali. "Some owners give in. When they start losing clients and advertising it gets very bad for them."

The sale of Cadena Capriles, a 70-year-old media mainstay that editorially leans toward Chavez and his followers, has raised questions about its mysterious new owners and the direction they will take it.

But Canizales said the new owners must be counting on the government's blessings. "It's not a comfortable position to buy a media outlet in Venezuela," he added.

The new owners of Globovision have been shaking up the news network, which during Chavez's 14 years in power gave extensive coverage to the opposition and its issues.

Globovision's news director and journalists resigned in protest after the sale. Other commentators were fired "on good terms," and coverage of opposition events has been curtailed.

Among those let go was lawmaker Ismael Garcia, a former Chavez supporter who set off firestorm recently by making public an audio recording that purports to expose conspiracies and corruption within Chavista ranks.

"Globovision had ten open court cases against it, some threatening it with closure, and its license is set to expire in 2015. Who would put their money in it without a government guarantee that they weren't going to be closed?" asked Canizalez.

Marianela Balbi, director of the Institute of the Press and Society, says the government has not given on its quest to control the media.

In the past month alone, she says, two private television stations in the western state of Zulia have closed, six television programs have been pulled off the air, and Globovision is being overhauled, she said.

The state, meanwhile, has expanded its media presence in recent years -- launching four public television stations, the regional Telesur television news network, and radio networks that depend on the government for financing and editorial direction, she said.

But as of 2011, the country's 660 private radio and television stations accounted for 70 percent of the broadcast spectrum.

By comparison, the state owns 43 radios and television stations, and 235 community radio stations.

And not all analysts agree that the government is moving to impose absolute control over the media: "That would give Maduro too much power," said Maryclen Stelling, a sociologist and media analyst.

Instead, she sees a new situation developing in which the government and the media "draw up new forms of coexistence based on a recognition that there are two political forces of equal weight."

She said Venezuela, a highly polarized country, may be seeing the emergence of a "politics of the center" in which the time has come "to talk and to make pacts."