Venezuelan newspaper closures leave coverage in state's hands

(Reuters) - Almost three-quarters of Venezuela’s newspapers have closed during five years of recession in the once-prosperous OPEC member country, according to the national journalism association, leaving El Nacional as the last independent national daily.

Journalists work at the newsroom of Ultimas Noticias newspaper in Caracas, Venezuela June 19, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Press watchdogs warn that media freedom declined over the past year, which saw President Nicolas Maduro win a fresh six-year term in May at elections boycotted by the opposition.

Venezuela slid six places in Reporters Without Borders’ index of world press freedom to 143 place from 180 countries surveyed.

According to Venezuela’s Press Institute IPYS, the national telecoms regulator also closed 40 radio stations in 2017 citing irregularities in their licenses.

Maduro’s government says it treats all media outlets equally and there is freedom of expression. However, it has publicly said it wants more control over the media, which in the past was openly anti-government and welcomed a brief coup in 2002 against then-President Hugo Chavez.

The closures have left coverage increasingly in the hands of state-controlled radio and television outlets and pro-government newspapers like Ultimas Noticias, covering Maduro’s official activities while ignoring rising levels of malnutrition and disease.

“Only the debris of the bourgeois media is left,” Maduro said in a speech in June during the country´s national journalists´ day.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the government’s treatment of the media.

A number of Venezuela’s new generation of online outlets also are increasingly facing difficulties. They are reporting website blockages, forcing them to find more creative ways to deliver news, such as audio summaries sent by WhatsApp.

“It’s a way of getting around censorship. Because we’re not going to just sit here moaning that they have blocked us,” said Cesar Batiz, who founded news site El Pitazo in 2014.

The Information Ministry did not respond to a request to comment on website blockages.

Editing by Daniel Flynn and Alistair Bell