If the proposed sale of Globovisión, the single remaining TV station critical of the Venezuelan government, is finalized next month, the broadcaster will almost certainly become less combative and could eventually turn into another government mouthpiece, according to news reports, local journalists, and analysts.
In a letter to employees last week, exiled Globovisión President Guillermo Zuloaga said the station's board of directors had accepted a purchase offer from Venezuelan businessman Juan Domingo Cordero, who is rumored to have close ties to the government.
Globovisión has faced multi-million dollar fines for its coverage. Its headquarters have been attacked by pro-government thugs, companies have been pressured by the government to withdraw their ads from the station, and its reporters are constantly harassed. Of the 51 alerts published so far this year by the Caracas-based Institute for Press and Society (IPYS), 21 have dealt with attacks and harassment aimed at reporters for Globovisión.
One of the key reasons for the decision to sell, Zuloaga wrote, is the near-certainty that under the current ownership the government will refuse to extend Globovisión's transmission license when it comes up for renewal in 2015.
"I felt obligated to accept the offer because it would extend the life of Globovisión and would allow us to keep our nearly 500 employees, who are my principle concern," Zuloaga said in the letter.
Still, Zuloaga requested that the sale be finalized after the snap presidential election that has been scheduled for April 14 following the March 5 death of Hugo Chávez. That's because Globovisión is the only TV station that provides regular coverage of opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who will face ruling party candidate and interim President Nicolas Maduro in next month's voting.
Maduro is the heavy favorite and he has pledged to continue Chávez's socialist policies, which have included widening state control over the country's private media.
Cordero, Globovisión's suitor, is president of the Venezuelan insurance company La Vitalica and is a former head of the Caracas Stock Exchange. According to news reports, he has friendly ties to the government and his insurance company has many contracts with state institutions. He is also the uncle of Zuloaga's wife.
"Some people say he is the front man of a group of entrepreneurs, some very close to the government, who got together to buy Globovisión," Caracas political analyst Carlos Romero told CPJ. "Everyone expects the new owners will be friendlier towards the government and the official party."
Romero pointed out that the sale would have to be approved by Conatel, the media regulatory agency. Conatel is dominated by officials close to the government and has been extremely hostile towards Globovisión. Last year, Conatel fined the station $2.2 million for its allegedly incendiary coverage of deadly 2011 prison riots.
"If Cordero was an enemy of the government, there is no way Conatel would allow him to buy it," María Fernanda Flores, a Globovisión vice president and board member, told CPJ.
Neither Cordero nor Conatel responded to phone calls from CPJ requesting comment.
Last month, the government failed to include Globovisión among the initial 11 stations that will be allowed to make the transition from analogue to digital transmission in Venezuela, and this omission could have been a death blow to the station, according to news reports.
But the broadcaster would presumably be included in the digital transition under owners friendlier to the government, according to Roberto Giusti, who hosts a news program on Globovisión.
In addition, Giusti said, Conatel would almost certainly renew Globovisión's transmission license under Cordero. Globovisión is available on open broadcast in the cities of Caracas and Valencia and on cable in the rest of the country.
"If you buy a TV channel whose signal expires in two years, you do it because you have some kind of guarantee from the government that the license will be renewed," Giusti told CPJ. "Otherwise, it makes no sense. It's a multi-million dollar investment. Nobody would do this investment if you are going off the air in two years."
In Globovisión's newsroom last week, the mood was grim. Investigative reporter María Iginia Hernández said she came to Globovisión after the Caracas radio station she worked at was forced off the air by the government. She said if the new owners decide to soften up the coverage, there will be no place left in Venezuela for hard-hitting TV news reports.
However, Flores, the Globovisión vice president, said it would make little sense for new owners to invest large sums in Globovisión, whose viewers tune in for its critical coverage, only to turn the station into another low-rated pro-government channel. She said it would be cheaper to silence Globovisión by denying it a new license in two years.
"They are buying a very powerful brand that has a lot of credibility," Flores said. "If they want to convert it into another Chavista TV station, why spend the money?"
[Reporting from Caracas]