What the Sale of Venezuela's Opposition TV Station Means for Free Speech

The last bastion of independent media in Venezuela has changed ownership -- but could it be for the best?

Opposition TV station Globovision's employees work at the main studio of the TV station in Caracas December 10, 2010. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

Globovision is Venezuela's last-remaining television station that is openly critical of the government of Hugo Chavez, (and his chosen puppet successor Nicolas Maduro) but on April 15, the majority shareholder Guillermo Zuloaga sold his portion to businessman Juan Domingo Cordero, sending both members of the opposition and some journalist rights groups into a frenzy.

Over the last 10 years, the government of former president Hugo Chavez has systematically shuttered media outlets critical of his administration, usually on the grounds of trumped-up regulatory infractions. The most famous closure was the January 2010 shutdown of RCTV, Venezuela's most popular channel. Its broadcast license was simply revoked. After that, two other major channels, Venevision and Televen, changed their editorial line to be more favorable toward the government and have remained on the air.

But Globovision has maintained and even hardened its critical coverage of the government. It is widely considered the last right-leaning media outlet of import.

After the April 15 announcement, despair was the immediate reaction among both the opposition and international journalist organizations. Many journalists have not survived in Venezuela, feeling the need to tow the government line or leave the country.

Yet, in the long run, fears may be overblown.

The new owner of 80 percent of the shares, Juan Domingo Cordero, is a businessman. It appears that he at least tries to maintain a neutral position politically and he may, in fact, be the TV station's salvation.

Even hard-core anti-Chavistas can admit that Globovision is biased. The rationale is that it is in response to the overwhelming number of channels that serve as little more than government mouthpieces.

But a Cordero-induced change in programming could actually be a good thing; by adapting a neutral stance giving equal coverage to both sides, the channel may become more respected and increase viewership.

Cordero is president of the Venezuelan insurance company La Vitalica. There is some speculation that he is simply the front man of a group of entrepreneurs, some of whom are known Chavistas, or supporters of the ideology of the late president Hugo Chavez. Even if this speculation is true, however, there is a chance that the station will not be forced to become pro-government.

Globovision, as it is now, has enormous viewership by those who consider it the last bastion of critical reporting. Those viewers will go if the station does not maintain at least a neutral line. It would be cheaper, for a supposed group of investors like this one, to simply not invest in a station that will inevitably fall into the category of a second-rate pro-government channel.

Zuloaga reportedly sold his shares for unfortunate reasons. It is rumored that he is tired of having his family threatened. In his advanced age, he doesn't want to feel that his family and loved ones are in danger because of him. Zuloaga has lived in the United States since 2010, when he sought asylum from the Chavez government. Oddly, Cordero is also the uncle of Zuloaga's wife. It is unclear if this played into the selling decision.

Another possible reason for selling is that a Maduro victory was widely foreseen; a Maduro-run government would not approve Globovision's transmission lisence when it comes up for renewal in 2015.

Globovision has faced multi-million dollar fines from the government for its coverage, particularly of a prison riot outside of Caracas in 2011. Private companies have reportedly been pressured to withdraw their ads from the station, and reporters often complain of receiving threats and harassment. The fact is that from many angles, Globovision was doomed. In the end, Cordero may be the perfect man to save it.